The phony and cynical “Congress has an exemption” claim

One of the attack lines against the Affordable Care Act is that Congress and congressional staff have a special exemption.

That’s phony and, certainly when it comes from Republican legislative leaders, cynical.

Don’t believe me?

First, read the explanation from the conservative publication the National Review. It’s titled “The Obamacare Non-Exemption.”

The dispute has its origin in the debate over the law in 2010. Republican senator Chuck Grassley suggested an amendment intended to make Democrats balk: Members of Congress and their staff would have to buy their insurance from the health-care exchanges. The amendment explicitly said that the federal government should continue making the same employer contributions. It was not designed to cut employees’ benefits, but rather to make sure they had a stake in the quality and efficiency of the exchanges. Democrats accepted it. . .

OPM decided to contribute the same amount to these exchanges that the government now spends on congressional employees’ health benefits ($5,000 for individuals, $11,000 for families).

Senator David Vitter (R., La.) says that Congress should pass an amendment to do away with this supposed “exemption.” The law would actually layer another regulation onto Congress (and executive-branch appointees, too) that doesn’t apply to any other American, by preventing their employer from contributing to their health insurance.

The net result of the law and the workaround isn’t a “special handout” for congressional employees.

To summarize this, Congress and their staff are treated differently but are not exempted.

They’re treated differently from everyone who gets insurance through their employers. The federal government doesn’t mandate that people with employer-based insurance get it through the exchange — except for members of Congress and their staff.

Critics of this arrangement say that these individuals shouldn’t have the federal government pay any portion of their premiums. But that would involve treating them worse than any other employees, not exempting them.

As the author of the piece in the National Review argues, “People who happen to be paid by the federal treasury don’t deserve to have the entire value of their existing coverage stripped away, as almost no Americans will experience.”

Second, note that this is an entirely cynical move.

Revelations have emerged that Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, has worked hard behind the scenes to keep funds flowing for the employer contribution to insurance premiums.

Behind-the-scenes, Boehner and his aides worked for months with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and others, to save these very same, long-standing subsidies, according to documents and e-mails provided to POLITICO. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was also aware of these discussions, the documents show.

During a five-month period stretching from February to July, Boehner and his aides sought along with Reid’s office to solve what had become a big headache for both of them. They drafted and reviewed a possible legislative fix, as well as continued to push for an administrative one from the Office of Personnel Management.

Boehner and Reid, however, went so far as to ask to meet with President Barack Obama to lobby him personally for help — using a cover story in order to protect the secrecy of the discussions, according to these documents.

Although the Oval Office session with Obama never came off, a senior Boehner aide spoke directly to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough about the speaker’s desire to retain the employer contribution for lawmakers and staff.

Republican members of Congress and their staff don’t really support taking away employer contributions for insurance premiums. It will especially hit staffers, whose salaries are lower than elected officials.

And for those legislators who are not wealthy, it will make it more difficult for them to hold office. Congress already has far more high-income people than exist in the general population.

Republicans who rail against this provision know that. They don’t support it, not really, and they know it treats staffers and national legislators worse than others, unfairly reducing their compensation. It’s not an exemption.

What this adds up to is politics at its worse.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.