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Why Congress won't exempt itself from ObamaCare, after all
Politico has the political world up in arms over a monumentally tone-deaf idea being floated in Washington. Or not...
 
The truth behind this political yarn goes back to an amendment Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed during the debate over ObamaCare.
The truth behind this political yarn goes back to an amendment Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed during the debate over ObamaCare. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Politico posted a great political story Wednesday night that was all but guaranteed to stir up outrage:

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.... A source close to the talks says: "Everyone has to hold hands on this and jump, or nothing is going to get done." [Politico]

Predictably, outrage came fast and furious in the wake of Politico's report. "Why should Congress get exempted from the utterly predictable consequences of the laws it passes while the rest of us pay the price for their arrogance?" says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. Senators and House members either need to suck it up and deal with ObamaCare like the rest of us, Morrissey says, or they can repeal the law. "Anything else is rank hypocrisy and cowardice."

This really is "political and moral misjudgment on an epochal scale," says Marc Ambinder at The Week. But "forget about the hypocrisy angle. That's easy outrage." The truly "atrocious" element of this story is the flimsy rationale for carving out an exception for legislators and their aides:

There is concern in some quarters that the provision requiring lawmakers and staffers to join the exchanges, if it isn't revised, could lead to a "brain drain" on Capitol Hill, as several sources close to the talks put it. [Politico]

Seriously, "the idea that Congressional staff members are special — so special as to warrant an exemption from a law that literally affects everyone else in the country — is delusional," Ambinder says. Most of the aides negotiating this alleged exemption make at least $100,000 a year, Ambinder says, and if Congress needs to keep talented staffers, they can pay them more — not cut their pay, as Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith notes the House has done — just like every other large organization has to do to keep talent.

Thankfully, the premature leaking of this plot will probably kill it, Ambinder continues. "I bet that's why someone tattled to the two reporters anyway: The idea is so bad that it has to be crushed before it can hatch."

Indeed, while Politico's article is a great political yarn, it isn't very good on policy — or even very accurate, says Ezra Klein at The Washington Post. "No one is discussing 'exempting' congressional staffers from ObamaCare." The truth is much less outrageous, and much less interesting. What's going on is essentially "an effort to fix a drafting error that prevents the federal government from paying into insurance exchanges on behalf of congressional staffers who got caught up in a political controversy." Here's the real story:

Back during the Affordable Care Act negotiations, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed an amendment forcing all members of Congress and all of their staffs to enter the exchanges. The purpose of the amendment was to embarrass the Democrats. But in a bit of jujitsu of which they were inordinately proud, Democrats instead embraced the amendment and added it to the law. [Washington Post]

The amendment mandates that, unlike other federal employees, members of Congress and their staff will be switched to health care plans either "(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)." But ObamaCare doesn't allow large employers to participate in exchanges until 2017, if at all, and "the federal government is the largest employer in the country," Klein notes. Everyone is waiting on a ruling from the Office of Personnel Management on whether Congress has the authority to pay some of their staffers' premiums.

"See? This is getting boring already," Klein says. Which is probably why Politico opted to put the politics above policy.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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