Trick or Treat for Congress Today on Obamacare
Congressmen scramble to take advantage of special treatment for their staff.


John Fund

The real drama on Capitol Hill often takes place backstage and away from the camera lights.

That happened yesterday as House members postured over Obamacare during health secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s testimony, while in the back rooms members in both houses were maneuvering to exempt as many of their staffers as possible from the balky Obamacare exchanges everyone is talking about.

Politico framed it best: “Congressional offices this week have been forced into a frenzied, late-hour scramble to decide which of their staffers will be pushed onto the District of Columbia’s health insurance exchanges and which will be able to keep their current health insurance plans.” By the close of business Thursday, every member of Congress will have to decide whether to exempt some of their staff from Obamacare’s requirement that they go on the exchanges or put them on the exchanges with a subsidy to cover the cost, unlike any other Americans of similar income levels in the system.

As the wheels come off Obamacare, there is quiet panic this Halloween on Capitol Hill as everyone tries to make sure they’re as far removed from the law as possible. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, says no one is calm about the issue. “If you even bring it up, you’d have thought that you had shot somebody’s dog,” he told reporters this month. “People just freak out.”

The scramble was set in motion in 2009, when Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) proposed an amendment to Obamacare requiring all members of Congress and their staffs to get insurance through the Obamacare health exchanges. Fearful of being seen as avoiding the system they were imposing on millions of Americans, Democrats allowed the amendment to become part of the final law.

In its final form, the law forcing the use of exchanges applied to members of Congress and “all full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a member of Congress, whether in Washington, D.C., or outside Washington, D.C.”

The exchanges are intended for uninsured people who don’t have health insurance through their employer or qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. In the final Obamacare law, there was no language allowing members of Congress and their staffs with access to employer health insurance to keep their heavily subsidized federal health-care contribution (worth up to $5,000 a year for individuals and $11,000 a year for families).

Democratic and Republican staffers alike were furious, warning that Congress faced a “brain drain” if the provision stuck. Under behind-the-scenes pressure from members of Congress in both parties, the executive branch used the quiet of the August recess to issue a ruling interpreting the law so as to retain the generous congressional benefits the law doesn’t mention.

Of course, such back-room rule-making wouldn’t have been necessary if Congress had had the courage to openly pass a law providing the subsidies or raising salaries to compensate for the loss of benefits. But that would require a controversial, highly visible vote — one that members of Congress shrink from the way Dracula does from the cross and garlic.