No Obamacare favor; rule ends penalty to Congress, staff

October 2, 2013 

Budget Battle

The House of Representatives, foreground; the U.S. Capitol.

SUSAN WALSH — Associated Press

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, defund Rep. Andy Barr's and the rest of Congress' taxpayer-provided health care benefits. Dock their pay, cancel their vacations and slash their pensions for good measure.

But don't fall for the canard offered by Barr, Fox News and just about every conservative editorial cartoonist that Congress and President Barack Obama carved out a cushy exemption from the Affordable Care Act for Congress and its staff.

It's easy to see why this cheap bit of demagoguery is so appealing and easy to believe: Congress has an approval rating of 10 percent, according to a recent poll that left 90 percent of Americans scratching their heads about who the 10 percent could be.

And it is true that Congress treated itself and its staff differently than every other American in the Affordable Care Act — it treated them worse.

One of the best explanations was published in The National Review, the conservative publication founded by William F. Buckley, which has railed against the Affordable Care Act but couldn't let this bit of intellectual disingenuousness stand unchallenged.

In an article, "The Obamacare Non-Exemption; Congressional employees aren't receiving a 'special handout,'" associate editor Patrick Brennan recounts the history of the provision that is causing great controversy based on what he calls a misunderstanding.

As background you need to know that most Americans will continue to get their health insurance through their employers or government programs such as Medicare.

The health insurance purchasing exchanges that launched yesterday to huge demand are open to individuals who can't get or can't afford health insurance and to employers of 50 people or fewer who are looking to buy coverage for their workers.

The exchanges might open to larger businesses in 2017 but for now the new insurance marketplaces are just for individuals and small employers.

Congress is neither.

But when the law was being debated in committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, proposed what he thought would be a poison pill: the members of Congress and their staffers would have to get their health insurance through the exchanges. The Democrats called his bluff and went along.

(The provision applies only to members of Congress and staffers who work in their offices, not staffers who work for all of Congress.)

Like most large employers, Congress pays part of the cost of health insurance for its members and employees — roughly 70 to 75 percent of the premium cost. Grassley did not intend to end the employer contribution. But nothing specifically allowed Congress to continue its employer contribution made it into the law.

Congressional staffers at the low end of the salary scale might qualify for discounted premiums, but members of Congress who make $174,000 a year would have to pay the full cost of their and their families' health insurance out of their own pockets.

In August, the Obama administration issued a rule allowing Congress to continue its employer contribution, while ruling out tax credits for Congress and staff through the exchanges. This prompted outcries of special treatment, even though leaders of both parties had pushed for the change.

We agree with Barr that Congress and the president should live by the same health care law they have imposed on the American people.

But since a Republican ploy unintentionally resulted in a law that requires Barr and his colleagues to be treated differently from the rest of the American people by defunding their health insurance benefits, we're more than happy to go along with it and suspect most Americans would heartily agree.

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