But for a court to intervene in state-government disputes over the Constitution is one thing; the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause suggests that any branch of state government is liable to federal jurisdiction. As far as my research shows, however, this is the first time in American history that a judge has found that one of the Houses of Congress has standing to sue the president over appropriations.
Peter Shane of Ohio State University, a separation-of-powers guru, notes the difference: “Relying on theories of legislative standing that supported past federal lawsuits by state legislators ignores the separation of powers considerations that undergird standing law.” This is a fight between the other two co-equal branches; there is no Supremacy Clause to eliminate doubt about the Court’s authority.
It’s a portentous line to cross, because, as Vanderbilt Law Professor James F. Blumstein said in an interview, “there are a lot of risks in allowing the House to have institutional standing.” Deciding this question will involve the courts in the poisonous partisan atmosphere of the capital in 2015. On the other hand, Blumstein notes, “the strongest possible case [for standing] is in the appropriations context.” It is one thing to tell the House and the President to fight it out politically, Blumstein notes, but “when the House goes to war it does it with the power of the purse.” If Congress can’t stop appropriations, then that power is negated. A claim that the executive has usurped that power may really be a claim that the House is on fire.
As originally filed by the House, the claim against the administration had two main parts. In the first, the House argued that the administration had violated the Constitution by spending non-appropriated money; in the second, it claimed the administration was misapplying the law by delaying the employer mandate and making other decisions about how to roll out the ACA program. Collyer dismissed the second set of claims because they only “concern the implementation, interpretation, or execution of federal statutory law.”
But as Shane notes, even in the claim that remains, the real issue is not whether Obama has authority to spend money without authorization; it is whether the statute, properly read, authorized the spending. “I don't think [Judge Collyer’s] distinction holds up,” he said. “This is a case about the proper interpretation of the scope of an appropriation statute.”
Blumstein says that the decision “makes me nervous because you start down a path and don’t know where it’s going. But the courts have often said that the fact that you don’t want to go too far down a path doesn’t mean you don’t start down it.”