The Latest Obamacare Lie: Congress Exempted Itself From The Law


A persistent theme in discussions about Obamacare in recent weeks has been the claim that the White House has granted congress an exemption from the law. Right wing bloggers and commentators have been screaming to the heavens about the injustice. FreedomWorks vice president opened a column attacking the “exemption” by saying “ready your pitchforks.” GOP strategist Ana Navarro commented on Meet the Press:

So maybe he should talk about implementing the whole thing he passed and not doing these exceptions that I’m very disappointed Republicans and Democrats stayed quiet on the exceptions for the congressional staff that were made this last week. [sic]

The implication, of course, is that the president and congress recognize that the law is unpopular and they are making exceptions to its requirements for certain groups, such as those filthy, worthless bureaucrats in Washington. The so called liberal media has gleefully allowed this distortion to flourish. It may come as no surprise that the truth is somewhat different from what you have probably heard.

One of the guarantees offered to the public before the Affordable Care Act was ever brought to a vote was that anyone who was happy with his or her current insurance could keep that insurance. Congressional employees were already covered under an employer sponsored health insurance plan, known as the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP). Like many companies, the federal government makes a generous contribution to the cost of premiums under that plan as part of the elected officials’ and congressional staff’s benefits.

During the debate over the bill, Iowa Republican senator Charles Grassley (he of “pull the plug on grandma” fame) proposed an amendment requiring congress and congressional staff to purchase their health insurance plans from the same insurance exchanges that the public would use. Since these federal employees already had employer provided health insurance they would not otherwise have been required to use the exchanges, just like employees of any company that already provides health coverage. The amendment was completely unnecessary and was likely an attempt to embarrass Democrats, should they reject it. But Democrats called Grassley’s bluff and approved it.

The relevant text is found on page 81 of the law, and it says:

(i) REQUIREMENT.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, after the effective date of this sub-title, the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are—

(I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or

(II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act).

The question for members of congress and their staffs then became “will my employer’s contribution towards my health insurance continue even though I have to buy insurance from an exchange?” The federal Office Of Personnel Management (OPM) ruled in answer to that question that yes, the federal government may continue to make a contribution to the cost of congressional employees’ health insurance coverage. This was the basis of the “Obama exempts congress from Obamacare” lie.

Of course the right is frothing at the mouth at the unfairness of it all. Andrew Montgomery observed in a FreedomWorks editorial on August 6:

…OPM will allow the government to make generous employer contributions (aka taxpayer money) towards the health benefits of lawmakers and congressional staff. That’s a privilege denied to all other Americans under the health care law.

Here is what these commentators and their media lapdogs are missing: congress and congressional staff, thanks to the Grassley amendment, are already being treated differently from other Americans: they are the only workers in the country whose employer currently provides their health insurance coverage that are being forced from that coverage into the state-run exchanges. Staffers, some making as little as $30,000 a year, were looking at the prospect of having to pay 100 percent of their insurance premiums. The OPM ruling allows them to continue getting their previous level of premium support and not face what would amount to a large pay cut.

Republicans have claimed, ever since the law was passed, that Obamacare would cause workers to lose their insurance coverage, saying that businesses would opt to pay the non-compliance penalty rather than pay for health insurance. It is worth noting that one of few large employers that is dropping employee health coverage is the federal government, thanks to the political grandstanding of one Republican senator.