No, Congress Is Not Exempt From Obamacare

[Note: This article was written before the July 2013 announcement by President Obama’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM), that it would allow Members of Congress and their staff to keep their workplace health insurance subsidies despite having to obtain their coverage in a government health exchange. This special treatment is enjoyed by no other class of Americans. With the OPM announcement, Congress became effectively exempted from ObamaCare. — Dean Clancy, FreedomWorks]

A carefully crafted story in Politico caused a stir this week by claiming that congressional leaders were in talks to exempt staffers from the effects of Obamacare. It isn’t true.

Will Politico print a retraction? It’s more likely that they will merely pat themselves on their collective back, hoist a toast at their favorite DC watering hole, and share a laugh over another episode of successful trolling completed.

The Poltico article said (emphasis added),

Congressional leaders in both parties are engaged in high-level, confidential talks about exempting lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides from the insurance exchanges they are mandated to join as part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, sources in both parties said.

The talks — which involve Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Obama administration and other top lawmakers — are extraordinarily sensitive, with both sides acutely aware of the potential for political fallout from giving carve-outs from the hugely controversial law to 535 lawmakers and thousands of their aides. Discussions have stretched out for months, sources said.

But it isn’t that at all, nor is exempting someone from being in the exchanges exempting them from Obamacare.

The talks are about what the law actually means, and whether the government, as an employer, can help fund medical coverage for members of Congress and their staffs who are on exchange-based insurance. The Obamacare law (pdf) says in Section 1312:

(i) REQUIREMENT.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, after the effective date of this subtitle, the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are— 
(I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or 
(II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act). 

Avik Roy recalls that staffers have complained. Ezra Klein says it’s about whether the government can pay:

Based on conversations I’ve had with a number of the staffs involved in these talks, the actual issue here is far less interesting, and far less explosive, than an exemption. Rather, a Republican amendment meant to embarrass Democrats and a too-clever-by-half Democratic response has possibly created a problem in which the federal government can’t make its normal contribution to the insurance premiums of congressional staffers.

Klein is trying there to set the stage for amending the law, acting as if the provision were some kind of oversight. 

The tightness of the votes to pass PPACA being what they were, it would take work to show whether it would have passed without the Grassley amendment. In the context of passage, a political messaging amendment the central intent of which is actually included in the final version suddenly becomes indistinguishable from any of the other myriad policy concessions used to gather votes.

Congress is not only covered by Obamacare, but members and staff can be offered only plans that are either created by Obamacare or are offered through an exchange. That isn’t how the law works for most people, but it’s not exempting anyone — it’s more restrictive.

And in any case, House Speaker John Boehner is having nothing of it. His account tweeted Thursday:

Republicans introduced a bill today that would put all federal workers on the exchanges. 

It should be obvious that exempting Congress and staff from PPACA would be political suicide. It would be seen for what it is: a violation of the rule of law, striking at the very heart of the republic. Rather, Congress should live with the laws it makes, and the best way to do that is to put government employees on exchange-based insurance, and make them pay for it like everyone else.

Businesses all over are adjusting staff, cutting hours, and preparing to stop offering health insurance and just pay a fine. And Congress is worried about not being able to attract top-flight twenty-somethings to come to the Hill after college?

Cry me a river.

All of this tempest in a teapot was stirred up by Politico, when they knew, or should have known, that much of what they were implying was not true. Will they apologize? 

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