Politics & Policy

Trick or Treat for Congress Today on Obamacare

Congressmen scramble to take advantage of special treatment for their staff.

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.

#ad#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.

#page#Senator David Vitter (R., La.) and Representative Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.) said the OPM ruling removed the “sting of Obamacare” from Congress and offered amendments during the government-shutdown debate to end any exemption for anyone on Capitol Hill. “Unless we act, a horrible policy and illegal Obama-administration rule will go into effect,” Vitter told Senate colleagues in September. “And the rule says for members and any staff who do go to the exchange, they do get to take a big fat taxpayer-funded subsidy with them — a subsidy that’s completely unavailable to any other American at that income level going into the exchange.”

Members of both the House and Senate were able to avoid going on record about Vitter’s amendment before the government reopened this month. But the rush to the lifeboats on Capitol Hill to escape from Obamacare continued.

#ad#In what Politico dryly says “was a surprise,” the chief administrative officers of Congress ruled this week that members “could privately designate personal office aides as not ‘official,’ meaning they do not have to go on the exchange and could keep their current plan. Similarly, House lawmakers can decide that their committee and leadership staffers need to go on D.C.’s exchanges.”

The response of members is all over the lot. Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says he must do what is best for his employees and will declare his entire staff — including aides in his personal office — not “official” and thus still eligible for their federal plans. On the other hand, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is putting her entire staff in the exchanges.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid is allowing his leadership staff to escape the exchanges and stay with the federal insurance program. “Unbelievable,” one senior GOP aide told Politico. Reid “is apparently now saying that the law is good enough for average folks but not good enough for his leadership staff.” Reid’s office says it is simply “following the law,” or at least whatever interpretation is most current.

The four top Senate Republican leaders, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are putting every one of their staffers into the exchange. Some leading Democrats, such as budget chairwoman Patty Murray and Senate whip Dick Durbin, are doing the same.

Whatever their decision, members of Congress clearly do not want their unseemly scramble to become known to a public being inundated with stories of cancelled insurance policies and radically increased premiums. Two polls taken by Fox News and the Independent Women’s Voice both found that 92 percent of Americans opposed any special treatment for Congress when it comes to Obamacare. That’s why so many congressmen are practically begging reporters not to write or talk about it.

Heather Higgins, president of Independent Women’s Voice, says that Congress has three choices. “First, go into the Obamacare law with no special favors and endure it as millions of Americans have to; second, delay the mandate and associated taxes for a year while working to allow every American to keep the insurance policies they liked; or third, take advantage of special treatment and face the wrath of voters in 2014.”

Keeping today’s mad “scramble” on Capitol Hill for special treatment a secret from voters before the next election isn’t an option in the Information Age. Annoyed Americans are busy coping with all the “glitches” of Obamacare, but not busy enough to miss this.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.

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