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ObamaCare Exemption for Congress: Then and Now

The President, through the federal Office of Personnel Management, has declared that members of Congress and their staffs can receive employer subsidies for exchange-based insurance. Before you nod off, let me say what that means: Congress is effectively exempt from Obamacare.

I was alerted via twitter that   writing at Salon said the "right was confused by its own lie," and linked to my post back in April explaining the controversy. 

Thanks for admitting I was right, guys. It's goofy to claim that because I said Congress was not exempt then, that what has developed now must mean they are still not exempt. I admit that unlike Michael Cannon, I didn't expect this.

Obamacare is an insidiously complex piece of legislation, with dozens of policy pieces and conflicting goals.  All of those pieces were put in place to gain the support of some faction of Congress, even in many cases of a single Senator.

The system of subsidized exchanges was designed to make moderates happy, and to get the insurance lobby to support the bill's passage.

There was the Cornhusker Kickback to get the vote of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, the Louisiana Purchase to nab Louisiana's Senator Mary Landrieu, and so on.

Another amendment was offered by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to shame Democrats -- which of course proved impossible. S.3174 -- Grassley's "Health Reform Accountability Act," would have required the President and his little helpers, members of Congress, and their staffs to buy insurance on the exchanges if they wanted to have the government pay part of it.  

Big Flashy Notice: This is not what Obamacare says:


  `(i) IN GENERAL- Notwithstanding chapter 89 of title 5, United States Code, or any provision of this title--

`(I) the President, Vice President, each Member of Congress, each political appointee, and each Congressional employee shall be treated as a qualified individual entitled to the right under this paragraph to enroll in a qualified health plan in the individual market offered through an Exchange in the State in which the individual resides; and

`(II) any employer contribution under such chapter on behalf of the President, Vice President, any Member of Congress, any political appointee, and any Congressional employee may be paid only to the issuer of a qualified health plan in which the individual enrolled in through such Exchange and not to the issuer of a plan offered through the Federal employees health benefit program under such chapter.

Someone -- we're told Senator Chuck Schumer or his staff -- rewrote the amendment to exclude the executive branch, with weasel wording to say the plan just had to be offered on an exchange (not necessarily purchased through one) and included it in the final bill. 

The Grassley Amendment would have allowed Congress to have employer-subsidized insurance under Obamacare. But because the law doesn't allow large employers to pay for exchange-based insurance until 2017, that language was removed. It doesn't appear in the law.

To get the law passed, Democrats actively removed employer sponsorship of insurance for members of Congress and their staffs.

It's not a gimmick if it gets included in the law. It's a fundamental part of the legislation, since without it the bill probably would not have passed.

Supporters may have expected to be able to change provisions like that in conference after the House passed a plan. But because Scott Brown got elected in Massachusetts, they lost their filibuster-proof majority and the House had to pass the Senate bill, even though it wasn't anything like a workable law. 

Now after months of whining, Senate Democrats have convinced the President to allow OPM to subsidize them, even though no other employer in the country can do that. 

Expect insurance companies to tailor plans in the Virginia, Maryland and DC area to fit the needs of Congress and their staffs, who are the ultimate insider lobbyists. They can price the insurance so that only someone getting a huge subsidy would buy it. 

Congress has allowed itself to be exempted from this aspect of Obamacare. While the only insurance the federal government can offer its congressional employees must be in plans that are offered through exchanges, members of Congress and their staffs now have a benefit that the rest of America, by law, cannot have: their employer picks up the tab.

Back in April, stories circulated that Congress was going to fully exempt itself from Obamacare. That was never going to happen. No Congressman would ever go on record exempting himself or his staff from the law. 

Now members of Congress receive special treatment, by Obama edict, shielding them from the cost associated with the high premiums the law will create. 

If Congress accepts this blatant bribe, they deserve to be thrown out of office en masse along with those offering the bribe. Every last one of them.

Congress is now effectively exempt from Obamacare.  Members with an ounce of integrity will do what employers in the private sector have been forced to do: deny the subsidy, cut their staffs, and pay those they retain more, so they can afford by themselves to buy the overpriced insurance that will be offered on the exchanges. 

Can't afford it? Don't want to fire valuable people? Welcome to our world.

Then, members of Congress should refuse to vote for any budget or continuing resolution that funds this unworkable, unjust law.

David Porter

When Obamacare was being debated, opponents did everything they could to peel away support by raising issues ranging from "death panels" (a lie) and abortion (an issue sure to aggravate people on all sides). One item that did pass was a provision that required Congress and its employees to use the health care exchanges created for people who are uninsured or individually insured.

The exchanges might save a lot of people money; they might not. We'll see. But people who work for large employers don't have to think about it, since their employers are required to provide health insurance to full-time workers under the law.

The federal government, being quite a big employer, falls into this category. But Obamacare opponents, either out of spite or a desperate effort to kill the overall bill once and for all, stuck in a provision that requires congressional workers to use the exchanges anyway. This, in effect, is a special exception – except that the special exception didn't benefit Congress; it punished it. It would have created a situation under which every full-time employee of a large company in the country would get coverage through work except for Congress and its employees. Obama's recent edict ensures that the federal government will continue to make payments towards congressional employees health care – just as big employers must do across the country.

The amendment was petty and absurd. It was meant to flip a couple of votes, and it didn't work. The Obama administration directive doesn't fit into the convenient lie that government big-wigs are "exempting" themselves from the law.

lheal's picture
Loren Heal

No one else gets that benefit, and Congress is supposed to be living under the law. I'm not going to make excuses for them. It was exactly the legislative intent. If staff are paid so poorly as not to be able to pay for their own insurance, they should apply for a subsidy. If that's not enough, well, welcome to the new America, with the rest of us.

Jack Sears

Loren, seeking to understand why we think this a strong issue.

As bad as the ACA is on a broad policy basis, why would we advocate Congressional staff be punished by losing the equivalent of their employer's FEHBP contribution because they are required to buy health coverage in the exchanges?

I doubt if it was the legislative intent to say, gee, if you work for Commerce you get FEHBP employee contribution, but, staff in Congress do not.

lheal's picture
Loren Heal

Well, that's just dishonest, David.

Try to keep it straight. That provision was offered by Chuck Schumer as a substitute for the Grassley amendment, and was passed by Congress. It wasn't a means to peel off support, but to gain the support of Congress. There is no reason to think the law would have passed, since it did so with no votes to spare, without members being able to tell their constituents "We're on it, too!"

And no, big employers need not offer insurance, because our President has unconstitutionally waived that requirement for a year -- and since Congress has not called him on it, there is no reason to expect that not to continue in future years.

No other big employer can pay for exchange-based insurance. This is cheating, and it's transparent.