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Congress isn't 'exempt' from Obamacare

If you've been following the health care debate lately, you've probably heard quite a bit of talk about Congress being "exempt" from the Affordable Care Act. It
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)

If you've been following the health care debate lately, you've probably heard quite a bit of talk about Congress being "exempt" from the Affordable Care Act. It's a talking point the right has pushed quite aggressively, but is it true?

Republicans certainly want us to think so. Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) complained about an "outrageous exemption for Congress." The far-right editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint touted a similar line last week. Over the weekend, Republican media figures, including Bill Kristol and Ana Navaro, repeated the talking point on the Sunday shows, and no one thought to correct them. This morning, in an unusually hysterical piece, a Washington Times columnist suggested the policy might constitute "treason." (No, seriously, that's what it said.)

The policy certainly sounds awful, doesn't it? If "Obamacare" is so great, why are members of Congress eager to exempt themselves from the new federal system? No wonder Fox is so worked up over this.

The problem, as you might have guessed, is that the argument is so wildly misleading, it bears no meaningful connection to reality.

The trouble started in 2009 with a cheap stunt orchestrated by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). While lawmakers already get insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan, just like other federal employees, the Iowa Republican pushed a proposal to force members of Congress out of the federal system and into exchanges.

The point wasn't to shape policy, but to create a talking point for Republicans. Grassley desperately wanted to say, "Those darn Democrats think the exchanges are good enough for millions of Americans, but not good enough for themselves," and he assumed Dems would balk at his "plan" because they'd be unwilling to give up the generous Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan.

But Democrats called Grassley's bluff, embraced his idea, and added it to the Affordable Care Act.

And that's where the story gets a little tricky -- Grassley's partisan-stunt-gone-wrong sent members and their aides to get coverage through exchange marketplaces, but never created a mechanism to make that happen.

As Jonathan Cohn explained yesterday:

The federal government, like most large employers, not only provides the opportunity for its workers to get insurance. It also pays a large portion of the premium. Now that lawmakers and their advisers were going into the exchanges, what would happen to that contribution? Would they just lose the money?The answer, the administration decided last week, is no. Lawmakers and their staffs could keep their employer contributions, and apply that money towards the cost of whatever insurance they buy in the exchanges.

The policy has nothing to do with "exempting" Congress from the health care law, and everything to do with creating a mechanism through which lawmakers will kick themselves off their own insurance plan and into exchanges without a major premium hike.

For Republicans and their allies to whine incessantly about this is ridiculous, even by contemporary conservative standards. We are, after all, talking about an idea pushed by a Republican senator and quietly celebrated away from the cameras by Republican offices.

Jon Chait added that the manufactured outrage over an "exemption" for Congress represents "the toxic combination of ignorance and bad faith that has characterized the right's approach to Obamacare."

So Grassley's amendment created a situation for government workers that Republicans claimed, falsely, the law would create for everybody else: forcing them off their employer insurance and on to the exchanges. Grassley's amendment didn't even attempt to design a coherent way of changing health-care worker benefits, because, again, it wasn't an attempt to reform health care for Congress and its staff -- it was an attempt to furnish a talking point for Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It yanked away the subsidized health insurance Congress and its staff get, essentially imposing a massive pay cut on those workers.<.blockquote>

It was up to the Obama administration to figure out a resolution to this, and last week, to the relief of lawmakers and their staffers, it did -- offering the patch to a problem a Republican senator inadvertently imposed on lawmakers.

Bottom line: has Congress exempted itself from Obamacare? No. Members of the House and Senate, as well as their aides, will be kicked out of the federal system -- all because Grassley played a stupid game -- and will get coverage through exchanges.

The exchanges were, of course, designed for Americans who can't get coverage through their employer, but this pool of consumers will have a very notable exception: Congress.

Anyone who tells you there's a congressional "exemption" from the law either doesn't know what they're talking about, or assumes you're easily fooled into believing nonsense.