Thursday, March 19, 2015

Results-based Reasoning

I want to follow up with a few thoughts related to my earlier post on King v. Burwell. There, I dealt with certain legal nuances in the King v. Burwell case and extrapolated those into the broader culture. Eventually we ended up, like many times before, at the Garden of Eden. But there is more to this case—and the principles at play—that warrants investigation. There have been some recent developments in other areas of society that play into this as well. The Hillary Clinton email scandal comes immediately to mind.

First, let's start with a question. Why was the King v. Burwell case so highly politicized? Statutory construction isn't one of the hot-button wedge issues between the Left and Right. And yet this case made front-page news for days. What did the media focus on? Was it methods for determining the meaning of a sentence in a statute? "Republicans are strongly committed to the historical-grammatical approach, but Democrats have been calling to use the narrative context approach." No, that didn't happen. What happened was that the media—and the political narratives—focused on the results of both possible outcomes of the case. From there, they reasoned why the law should or should not be upheld, based upon the desirability of such results. I understand this approach, but I think it is misguided and devalues truth. I also see this approach deeply imbedded in the way society—and Christians—sometimes approach reasoning in general. Let's call it results-based reasoning.

Results-based reasoning has as its aim a particular desired result, and reasons from that point to arrive at a principle that supports the desired result. Usually people employ this method when there is a strong commitment to a particular result or policy in any given situation. This is commonly seen among lobbyists in Washington (even lobbyists for Christian causes). I have seen Christians engage in results-based reasoning in abortion cases, same-sex marriage cases, religious liberty issues, and many other related political topics. A great treatment of the topic with respect to religious liberty can be found here. We see a (rightfully) desired result, and we justify shaping and shifting and hem-hawing on the law because the result is good. There is the right result, so we need to make the law say whatever it needs to say to fit that result. 

We do this sometimes with the Bible: "if the Bible means X, then Y will result, and I don't like Y, so clearly the Bible doesn't mean Y." This method is enticing; however, in conservative, evangelical circles, I believe there is a healthy reticence to engage in this type of reasoning. We preach (or we ought to preach) "the Bible means X, therefore do Y." I realize that is a simplified scenario, but the principle is the same: The Bible is our authority, so we reason from it, not to it. In other words, we look at what the Bible says, and arrive at a result using the Bible as our foundation. We do not look at a desirable result and fit the Bible's meaning into that result. We are Christians, and so we stand in submission to God's word; the Bible does not submit to our desires. 

But how should Christians engage with non-canonical texts that still hold authority over our lives? Should we use the same process of reasoning, or are the rules different? I submit that the process for interpretation and application of biblical texts should also apply to all other texts (or laws) to which we are submitted. We should do this precisely because we are Christians.

A common victim of results-based reasoning is the Constitution. But the Bible and the Constitution are similar in that they are both a textual authority that govern something or someone. So we should interpret the Constitution the same way we interpret the Bible because both are an authority in our lives.

A proper submission to biblical authority reasons from the text of the Bible. Similarly, a proper submission to constitutional authority (which is also required of us) reasons from the text itself to whatever results from that reasoning. This is not to say that there won't be disagreements about the results. There will be. But the "litmus test" is whether we shoe-horn the Constitution to fit our desired result, or whether we engage in an honest attempt to follow what the text says and apply it faithfully to each situation.

Here is a great example of results-based reasoning in the King v. Burwell case. The author takes a predicted result of an unfavorable decision—that many people would lose subsidies—and reasons backward to the principle that the President only has to obey the Supreme Court's orders for the parties involved in that lawsuit. Thus, he concludes, the administration could still offer subsidies to everyone else besides the four parties to the lawsuit.

Now, the notion that the rest of the country does not have to obey a Supreme Court ruling (i.e., only the litigants to that case must obey the order) is a debatable topic. But usually it is debated in theory among academics. In academic debate, however, the question is usually this: is this a legitimate and legal course of action a priori, as a first principle? In this article, the question is put differently: can we use this debated legal principle to justify our desired ends? The question is quite different, and it illuminates the underlying worldview of the askers: truth is not an end to be reached; rather, it is a tool to be shaped towards a desired end.

People who love truth—or at least understand the nature of it—must understand that results-based reasoning is a denial of the immutability of truth. And to deny the immutability of truth is to deny the existence of truth. An immutable truth is no truth at all. Intellectually, I do not know many Christians who would deny that truth exists. But functionally, many of us operate as if it doesn't—or, at least, we can construct our own truth. This is why we are ok with using an "alternate" interpretation of the Bible when it suits our desired outcome. Or it is how we can say "yea, but..." when discussing a host of other issues. 

Christians should interact with other authoritative texts the same way we interact with the Bible. Its meaning is fixed and ascertainable. The "ascertaining" of that meaning may take time, effort, and debate, but it does not change, because the text itself has not changed. 

In the end, as always, there is a deceiver lurking in our ear: "does the text really say...?" Let us learn from the mistakes of our first parents and put off this old way of thinking. Both for the Bible and the Constitution. 



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Rule of Law and Original Sin

On March 4, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the case  that will determine whether subsidies provided for under the Affordable Care Act will be available to plans purchased on the federal health care exchange. The outcome of the case could have sweeping consequences for people who relied on federal-exchange funded subsidies to pay their healthcare premiums under the ACA. Aside from the pragmatic implications on everyday citizens, the underlying issue in this case illuminates a much deeper problem in the way our country (and culture) relates to the “the law.”

Some background information on the main issue in the case will help us understand what is going on. When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, there was a section in the law that provided subsidies (in the form of tax credits) to qualifying individuals who purchased plans through a healthcare exchange established by their state. The language of the law provided that premium assistance would be available to certain individuals if they were covered under a health insurance plan for each “coverage month.” The law then defines “coverage month,” with respect to an applicable taxpayer, as any month if “as of the first day of such month the taxpayer…is covered by a qualified health plan…that was enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the ACA.” 26 U.S.C. § 36B(c)(2)(A)(i). 

In other words, a qualifying taxpayer has to meet a series of conditions before they are eligible to receive subsidies. One of those conditions is that they be enrolled in a qualifying plan at the beginning of the month in which they seek assistance. The second condition to receiving assistance is that the person must be enrolled in a health plan through a state-established Exchange. It’s in the very definition of “coverage month.” 

As the state and federal healthcare exchanges were created (i.e., healthcare.gov), the IRS bore the responsibility of determining when and to whom premium assistance was available. In spite of the textual limitations of § 36B, the IRS interpreted that provision to authorize tax credits also for individuals who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange rather than the state exchanges. This highly politicized legal battle ensued. If the federal government’s interpretation is incorrect (that the ACA authorized subsidies for plans purchased on the federal exchange), then potentially millions of people will be “on the hook” to repay the IRS for premium subsidies wrongly credited to them.

So, the legal questions remain: does § 36B of the ACA authorize the IRS to provide tax subsidies to individuals who purchase health insurance through the federal exchange? And if it doesn’t, who has the authority to re-write the law? Does that rest with Congress, or can the Supreme Court re-write laws? 

Although the legal questions in this case may seem technical and unimportant, the implications—and even the very existence of this case—reveal something true about our legal culture and about human nature. The legal questions, on its face, are easy. The statute requires that subsidies be made available only to people who purchased insurance through their state exchange. The subsidies were meant to act as an incentive for states to participate in the Affordable Care Act. The language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, and when such is the case, there is a long legal precedent of following the plain text of a statute. Moreover, only Congress has the authority to change the law. The Supreme Court cannot, by it’s founding charter (the Constitution) re-write poorly worded statutes. 

Then why is this case before the highest court in the Unites States? Because culturally (and politically), the clear meaning of the statute’s text stands in the way of something that many people want: the subsidies. It is the age-old conundrum of wanting something badly but not having the authority to get it. And it exemplifies a pattern of behavior and rebellion that is as old as rebellion itself.

Here in King v. Burwell, the Court is asking “does the law really say that subsidies are only available through state exchanges?” In other words, the law is clear, but does it really mean that we have to abandon the federal exchange subsidies? This is not a new question, of course. People (and courts) have been asking that question of clearly written laws and rules since the beginning of mankind. Eve fell for the same tactic when Satan asked, “did God actually say ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). She saw the fruit, saw that it was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and so she ate of it, falling for Satan’s linguistic trickery. This is the original sin—a grasp at power and authority that belongs to a greater and higher authority. In this case, however, it is a question of who has proper authority with respect to written statutes. Who has the authority to re-write laws? Do courts have the authority to re-write poorly worded statutes, or does Congress have that sole authority under the Constitution? 

The Constitution is fairly straightforward in permitting the Supreme Court to decide “cases and controversies” among litigants under the existing law. There is no authority for the Supreme Court to re-write statutes (especially ones that are constitutional on their face). And yet we have a judicial body poised to potentially disregard the duties given to it by the Constitution—it’s “creator,” if you will. Where else have we seen a similar pattern—a created thing disregarding (and possibly disobeying) the will of its sovereign creator? In Romans 1, we see a similar pattern of people disregarding their creator and fashioning for themselves a code of conduct contrary to the revealed natural order of things. The creatures, in essence, shake their fists at their creator in rebellion. So too, it seems, does our judicial system figuratively shake its fist at the very thing that created it. At the end of the day, it is a question of authority. And humans have always struggled with the concept of authority. 

This is not the first time there has been a potential judicial usurpation of legitimate Congressional authority. It has been happening with consistent regularity. But we should also be conscious that, even as our judges invert the order of authority, so we do the same in our own hearts every day. The solution—for both judges and citizens—is not stricter authority. The solution is, and always has been, repentance and faith in Christ. Only then will we be freed from the shackles of rebellion and liberated to the submission of good and godly authority.