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Myth of Congress' Obamacare exemption

Published 09/24/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 09/23/2013 05:25 PM

There is no better way to make a federal law unpopular than to have Congress exempt itself from its provisions. No wonder then reports that Congress has exempted themselves and their staffs from the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare - is further eroding support for the law aimed at making sure all Americans have access to health care insurance.

However, the claim, while constructed on some shred of truth, is false. It is symbolic of what is wrong with Washington. It is a strategy meant to confuse and divert attention from the real issue. It is a substitute for engaging in genuine debate. The intent is to anger, rather than inform the public.

It is also perhaps the last resort of a cohort of Republicans in Congress who are moving toward the unprecedented step of trying to force the repeal of an enacted law by threatening to shut down the government or take the United States into default or both.

In other words, it is an act of blackmail. Agree to defund the Affordable Care Act or face the prospects of a government shutdown and a default that shakes the markets and damages the economy.

Sensible Republicans know this will not work. They recognize the ransom will not be paid. President Obama and the Democrats, who control the Senate, will not surrender on the president's signature piece of legislation. Republicans will rightfully end up with the blame if these tactics force a crisis.

So having botched the politics, Republicans turn to the canard that Congress is exempting itself. No less than the Wall Street Journal, recognizing the shutdown-government strategy amounts to a circular firing squad, urged on its editorial pages that the GOP refocus on the congressional "carve-out."

How did things get to this confused point? They got here because a Republican senator baited Democrats with a politically motivated amendment. During the health care debate back in 2009, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley offered an amendment that congressional representatives and their staffs would have to get their insurance through the health insurance exchanges.

This made little sense because the intent of the exchanges is to provide a means for individuals and small companies to access affordable health insurance. Larger employers who provide health insurance and their workers will not participate.

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program covers lawmakers and their staffs. There is no reason for them to be part of the exchange, but for the Grassley amendment. His expectation was that Democrats would oppose the amendment, giving Republicans a chance to make the charge of refusing to treat themselves and their staffs the same as anyone else.

However, the Democrats called his bluff and enacted it.

This brings us to the present discussion. The exchanges are readying to open. Barring a change, Congressmen and staff workers will utilize the exchanges to purchase insurance. Yet what about the $5,000 to $11,000 annually the government contributes to their health insurance premiums? Do they lose those because they have to utilize the exchanges, unlike workers for any other large employers?

The Office of Personnel Management, which administers the federal insurance program, said no, ruling that the federal government should continue to make contributions toward the premiums of lawmakers and their staffs on the exchanges.

This is the "special treatment," the "exemption" that is the focus of the latest attacks. It ignores the fact that because of political game playing the law is forcing congressional staff workers and their families onto the exchanges, unlike all other workers in similar situations. They will keep the premium subsidies but could well end up with inferior plans.

There is no exemption, but that is not likely to stop the political attacks or the myth.

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