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How Amelia Bedelia explains Obamacare’s last Supreme Court challenge

Nicholas Bagley, an assistant law professor at University of Michigan, has an amazing analogy to help understand King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court case decided yesterday upholding Obamacare's insurance subsidies:

The plaintiffs' position has always reminded me of an old Amelia Bedelia story. When the literal-minded but bighearted housekeeper is told by her employer to weed the garden, she decides to plant a big row of really big weeds. "She said to weed the garden," insists Amelia Bedelia, "not unweed it."

When asked why anyone would want more weeds, Amelia Bedelia has to stop and think. "Maybe vegetables get hot just like people," she says. "They need big weeds to shade them."

Writing for a six-justice majority, Chief Justice John. G. Roberts Jr. recognized that the plaintiffs' attempt to explain why Congress would withhold subsidies for residents of some states was every bit as "implausible" — his word — as Amelia Bedelia's notion that vegetables need shade. In his view, other provisions of the statute demonstrated that Congress meant subsidies to be available nationwide.

Nick has been one of the smartest, most consistent writers on the King case, and his Amelia Bedelia analogy perfectly captures the way the King plaintiffs read the Affordable Care Act.

Common sense suggested that of course Congress meant for all states to have insurance subsidies; health policy experts have always known that any law that requires people to buy coverage has to give those people financial help in order to make plans affordable.

The people who worked on the law — legislators, staff members — made the same suggestion, forcefully and repeatedly. They've said again and again that they never considered limiting subsidies to the state marketplaces. "I don’t ever recall any distinction between federal and state exchanges in terms of the availability of subsidies," Olympia J. Snowe, a former Republican senator from Maine who helped write the Finance Committee version of the bill, told the New York Times.

The only place where Bagley's analogy falls apart a bit is that unlike Amelia Bedelia — who in good faith seemed to think she really needed to plant more weeds in the garden — the King plaintiffs did something different. They tried to confused everyone else about the law in order to take it down. They were hit by sudden, strategic ignorance of how the whole thing worked — but they weren't able to infect the Court.