How The Media Invented The Latest Obamacare Controversy

After a Politico article on Wednesday evening suggested that Congress is plotting to “exempt” itself from enrolling in the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchanges, other media outlets quickly began using the piece to accuse Democrats of trying to avoid complying with the law. But a close reading of the original Republican amendment behind the uproar reveals that the controversy has more to do with politics than the merits of the health legislation.

The provision, initially authored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), requires Congressional employees, including lawmakers and some of their aides, to drop their existing health care coverage in the Federal Health Benefits Program (FEHB) and enroll in the insurance exchanges at the core of the health law by 2014.

“My interest in having Members of Congress participate in the exchange is consistent with my long-held view that Congress should live under the same laws it passes for the rest of the country,” Grassley said in a press release at the time, hoping to force Democrats to take a vote of “no confidence” in their own law. But that’s not what happened. Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), called Grassley’s bluff and included his amendment in the final Senate bill that eventually passed.

The measure ended up on page 157 of the final law, but did not specifically mention the role of the employer contribution, leading regulators to raise concerns that the language could prohibit the federal government from contributing to the insurance costs of Congressional employees and leave poorly-paid aides responsible for the full cost of coverage. The Office of Personnel Management is currently deciding the matter, though Republican staffers told Politico that lawmakers are in negotiations to change the amendment and alter Grassley’s requirement.


But Politico’s implication that Democrats are trying to exempt themselves from the Affordable Care Act, while mandating millions of Americans to enroll in expensive coverage through the exchanges, falls apart upon examination of the original Grassley amendment, available on the Senate Finance Committee website. The measure may have been a political ploy to embarrass Democrats, but it does not seek to treat Congressional aides as unemployed and uninsured individuals who would have to (comparatively) pay more for insurance than they currently do. Rather, the measure clearly stipulates that Congressional employees “use their employer contribution” to buy insurance through the exchange:

The author of the provision and all of the lawmakers who ultimately voted for it always intended for the federal government to continue subsidizing coverage for their staff (Grassley introduced another amendment to cover more staffers in 2011, which also included the “employer contribution” portion) and Democrats fully expect OPM to issue regulations consistant with the intent of the law. “Senator Reid is committed to ensuring that all members of Congress and Congressional staff experience the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in exactly the same way as every other American,” spokesman Adam Jentelson said in a statement. “He believes that this is the effect of the legislation as written, and that therefore no legislative fix is necessary.”

Unfortunately, conservative critics and some in the press are so eager to report on the alleged failure of the Affordable Care Act, a fairly mundane and technical question becomes a sensationalistic story about Congressional hypocrisy.