And lo was Obamacare passed, and lo did members of Congress and their staffs find out what was in it: a provision requiring legislators under 65 and their personal staffers to get their insurance through the law’s health exchanges. And it appears as if many legislators—including some Democrats—are dismayed by the requirement.
“Secret talks” are underway between both parties in Congress to do away with this requirement, according to Politico. Proposals have been submitted to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which manages congressional staffer benefit options. According to Politico's story, “One proposal exempts lawmakers and aides; the other exempts aides alone.”
The fear amongst Hill offices is that the requirement will mean that congressional staffers have to purchase insurance from the exchanges using after tax dollars, without the subsidy that they now receive for insurance acquired through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). “If they lose that subsidy,” Politico reported in March, “it’s like getting a pay cut of several thousand dollars.” OPM has yet to rule on whether that subsidy will still be available once staffers have to go through the exchanges. But the worry on the Hill is that the compensation cut and the requirement to get insurance through the exchanges could lead to a “brain drain,” in which talented staffers or potential staffers avoid working in congressional offices.
So here’s what’s not happening: Congress is not attempting to exempt itself from Obamacare entirely.
But here’s what is happening: Members of Congress are looking for a way to get out of the part of the law that affects them most—and avoid the health insurance exchanges that are intended to serve as the primary vehicle for the law’s health insurance expansion.
This is not simply a minor technical issue, nor just a little glitch (although ObamaCare does seem to be rather full of glitches). Instead, it’s a telling illustration of one of the largest problems with the law, which is that at the micro level, it’s extremely poorly conceived—confusing, irritating, and difficult to implement or plan for as written and passed. Even, it seems, for those who voted to pass it.
And, of course, also for the Republican legislators and staffers who didn’t vote for it. Obamacare critics are already warning GOP House Speaker John Boehner that they will react angrily if his office, which is apparently participating in the bipartisan talks, is complicit in allowing Democrats to avoid consequences of their own law.
But I’m a little tempted to argue the reverse: Boehner could join hands with Democrats to pass a fix that lets members of Congress and their staffers out of the exchange requirement. He could say that Republicans remain opposed to forcing ObamaCare’s bureaucratic burdens on any American. In other words, let congressional Democrats go on record as voting to exempt themselves from complying with every feature of their own law—and then remind them of that as often as possible.
Tempting as that is, however, I like the suggestion offered by Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute even better: Push to expand the exchange requirement to more members of the federal government, starting with the administration. “It is vital,” he writes, “for these individuals to experience, first-hand, how Obamacare’s costly mandates and regulations will drive up the cost of health insurance.” They passed it. They’re finding out what’s in it. And now, like the rest of us, they ought to have to live with it.