Suing Obama: How Much Is Boehner Setting Back Taxpayers?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The House of Representatives has been busy as of late on one particularly public legal activity. Unfortunately, I’m not talking about immigration reform; I’m not even talking about semi-nude beach volleyball (wait — that’s what congressmen do on vacation, right?). I’m referring to the lawsuit spearheaded by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and directed at President Barack Obama for supposedly overstepping the boundaries of his office. July saw House members vote in favor of allowing the suit, and since then the subject matter has been narrowed to deal specifically with his enforcement of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The suit is controversial in two parts: The first deals with whether or not the lawsuit is even viable. The second related controversy concerns the cost of the suit up through 2015.

Is it viable?

Some say the suit is simply a waste of time and money; that it’s generally a giant elephant in the political circus, balancing on an oily ball. Yes, it gets a lot of attention, but it will inevitably fall off. Others claim the suit is as big a tool for Democrats as it is for Republicans, arguing that the left is ramping up fears of impeachment even more than Republicans as a tool for getting reluctant voters to the polls this year.

Obama, for his part, has taken the suit lightly, cracking jokes on a number of occasions — “so sue me” — and criticizing Congress for wasting time. “Everybody recognizes this is a political stunt,” said Obama. “But it’s worse than that, because every vote they’re taking like that (meaning the July vote to allow the suit) means a vote they’re not taking to actually help you.”

Experts contradict each other — as experts are wont to do nearly all of the time — on whether or not there’s a solid theoretical, and, more importantly, legal argument behind the suit. Elizabeth Price Foley, law professor at Florida International University College of Law, told Politico that “When a president unilaterally waives, delays, or suspends a law such as the ACA, he squelches any opportunity to have a robust, political debate about the workability of the law, and thereby undermines democracy itself.”

However, even assuming the president did do something illegal, Jon Siegel, expert from George Washington University’s School of Law, argues that it doesn’t mean a case is viable, according to Vox. “There’s a principle of our constitutional system that goes back tot he Marbury v. Madison decision that says there are some illegal, and even constitutional violations, that are not justifiable. There has to be someone who was actually harmed by that illegal action,” and the House of Representatives might not be able to argue injury to itself.

Cost to taxpayers

As Obama pointed out — though he’s hardly an objective party — “By the way, you know who is paying for this suit they’re going to file? You.” This is where things get even more nasty, in terms of political rhetoric. On the one hand, major waste takes place at the government level when it comes to spending. Plus, for those that takes the Republican perspective, legal costs are absolutely justifiable to protect the balance of power. On the other hand, the cost taxpayers will foot for such a lawsuit, which comes out to be $500 per hour, as outlined by the House Lawsuit Contract for Legal Services, with an overall cap of $350,000. That opens a wide door for criticizing the GOP’s spending should the suit prove unfeasible. Comparing that cost

Admittedly, $350,000 isn’t as large a sum as some might think, not when it comes to legal fees at this level of government. Consider New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who had a bill, at minimum, of $314,000 worth of legal expenses from his defense against federal grand jury subpoenas — according to The Wall Street Journal. Comparable, right? But then look at the bill tax payers are faced with from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, who dealt with the Christie requested internal investigation, which have added up to around $8.5 million, according to NJ.com.

So as far as legal fees go, the GOP’s $350,000 cap isn’t comparably bad when you look at that level of government expense — except that’s because it will just be the tip of the iceberg. The cap is only extended until the contract ends in 2015 with the new Congress; by the time all is said and done with a lawsuit of this size, the money that might go into it would likely rise above and beyond to new and incredibly pricey heights. And on top of that, the expense not being bad when compared to other unnecessary government expenses isn’t really a solid argument for a $500 an hour charge.

Let’s compare it to a few other numbers. First off, that $350,000 cap is just a smidgen below the $395,762 per case average for death penalty trials defense costs. That’s over the entire course of the process, with subsequent appeals and decisions, according to The Death Penalty Information Center. That’s for what is often years worth of cases deciding whether or not someone will be killed.

Then we could compare it to the median yearly household income of Americans for some perspective. According to CNN Money, that number fell at around $51,017 in 2012. That’s somewhere close to seven years of income for your average family, and even when we look at it more realistically as tax dollars, most probably still remember how painful April can be for the pocket books. Looked at a different way, it’s more than you’d spend to buy a Rolls-Royce Phantom outright by $60,000 — just ask Forbes.

Still another way to look at it, for that amount of money we could pay the salary of a Russian political leader three times over, or two members of Kenya’s parliament — according to The Economist. So for the price of suing Obama — just to start — you could arguably buy a handful of Russian politicians — nudge nudge, wink wink. We could also pay the yearly salary of Canada’s Prime Minister, twice over, and the Speaker of the House of Common’s salary three times over. It’s only $50,000 less than Obama’s yearly salary, and over $100,000 more than Vice President Joe Biden’s yearly salary. It’s approximately twice the annual income of Congressmen.

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