Congress Wants Exemption from ObamaCare Exchanges (Or Does It?)

There's bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill that they don't want to participate in ObamaCare.


Congress wants to exempt itself from the ObamaCare exchanges.

Politico (“Lawmakers, aides may get Obamacare exemption“):

Congressional leaders in both parties are engaged in high-level, confidential talks about exempting lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides from the insurance exchanges they are mandated to join as part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, sources in both parties said.

The talks — which involve Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Obama administration and other top lawmakers — are extraordinarily sensitive, with both sides acutely aware of the potential for political fallout from giving carve-outs from the hugely controversial law to 535 lawmakers and thousands of their aides. Discussions have stretched out for months, sources said.

A source close to the talks says: “Everyone has to hold hands on this and jump, or nothing is going to get done.”

Yet if Capitol Hill leaders move forward with the plan, they risk being dubbed hypocrites by their political rivals and the American public. By removing themselves from a key Obamacare component, lawmakers and aides would be held to a different standard than the people who put them in office.

Most people already have an incredibly low opinion of Congress, which constantly exempts itself from the law it imposes on others. What’s baffling to me is that Members and their  staffers are federal employees, who should presumably already be entitled to health insurance benefits. Unless there’s something I’m missing—and that could well be the case—the exchanges are a fallback position for employers who don’t provide health coverage for their workers; they don’t preclude them from providing benefits they already provide (although they may incentivize doing just that).  Here’s what the story says:

There is concern in some quarters that the provision requiring lawmakers and staffers to join the exchanges, if it isn’t revised, could lead to a “brain drain” on Capitol Hill, as several sources close to the talks put it.

The problem stems from whether members and aides set to enter the exchanges would have their health insurance premiums subsidized by their employer — in this case, the federal government. If not, aides and lawmakers in both parties fear that staffers — especially low-paid junior aides — could be hit with thousands of dollars in new health care costs, prompting them to seek jobs elsewhere. Older, more senior staffers could also retire or jump to the private sector rather than face a big financial penalty.

Some Democrats think this is all a misunderstanding:

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a key Obamacare architect. Waxman thinks there is confusion about the content of the law. The Affordable Care Act, he said, mandates that the federal government will still subsidize and provide health plans obtained in the exchange. There will be no additional cost to lawmakers and Hill aides, he contends.

“I think the law is pretty clear,” Waxman told POLITICO. “Members and their staffs should get their health insurance through the exchange; the federal government will offer them health insurance coverage that they obtained through the exchanges because we want to get the same health care coverage everybody else has available to them.”

So, it sounds like, rather than exempting themselves from the same provisions that apply to the rest of the country, what’s being proposed here is undoing a provision in the law that requires Congress to participate in the exchanges rather than provide their old coverage plan. Which seems perfectly reasonable to me. Federal employees have a decent baseline health plan and have the option to pay out of pocket for much better coverage for themselves and their families. It would be odd for those who work for Congress to have some different, lesser coverage.

Regardless, this is obviously a boon for Republicans:

When asked about the high-level bipartisan talks, Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, said: “The speaker’s objective is to spare the entire country from the ravages of the president’s health care law. He is approached daily by American citizens, including members of Congress and staff, who want to be freed from its mandates. If the speaker has the opportunity to save anyone from Obamacare, he will.”

That’s a great talking point.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein argues that, no, Congress isn’t trying to exempt itself but ObamaCare but rather trying to “fix a drafting error that prevents the federal government from paying into insurance exchanges on behalf of congressional staffers who got caught up in a political controversy.”  The explanation behind this is several hundred words long, confusing as hell, and boring.  It does strike me as likely the right answer, though, for reasons outlined in my original post: Congress already provides healthcare for its employees.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. HelloWorld! says:

    Congress should just pass one law that states that members of congress are royalty, and are exempt from all laws that they pass, unless the law financially benefits them. After all, they are our selfless, god fearing, law makers, so society really owes them special rights, and the respect they have earned.

  2. Tyrell says:

    Why don’t we exempt the members of Congress from Congress ? Get all of them out through recalls and just start over. Can the president, (as chief law enforcement officer) issue a ruling thst Congress can not exempt themselves from the laws?
    2014, 2016: Fire them all, vote for no incumbents !! Occupy Washington !!

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Get all of them out through recalls and just start over.

    Congressmen can be recalled? They can be voted out of office and they can be impeached but recalled?

  4. edmondo says:

    So “Congressional leaders in both parties” have finally admitted that the heathcare “reform” law is a pile of feces? Finally?

    The Democrats are in deep trouble in 2014 once the mandate kicks in jst in time for teh mid-terms.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    Easy answer…give everyone access to the plan Congress currently has.
    Every person in America gets decent baseline care…with the option to purchase better.
    Why are our employees on the Hill…who are already vastly overpaid…getting better care than their employers?

  6. JKB says:

    So, Obamacare, which the Democrats passed without any Republicans, Obama’s signature issue, is so bad, so poorly written, that Congress and the actual staffers who wrote it, screwed themselves by accident? I guess they really did have to pass it to find out what was in it.

    Outstanding, but wasn’t this Congress will be subject to the law part of the sales pitch? Seems an awful lot of parts of the law were left to be “fixed” by further legislation.

    Is this the Silicon Valley influence on the Democrats? Just get the package out the door and try to fix all the bugs during beta testing? Failure this time, is everyone is going to be forced to be a beta tester. Stand by for the blue screen of death healthcare.

  7. Todd says:
  8. rudderpedals says:

    @Todd: Good find. Tiger Beat on the Potomac caught manufacturing the morning win again.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    Yes JKB…SS and Medicare…two of the most successful and popular programs ever…were never fixed or adjusted subsequent to their original passage into law.
    Buy a dog, name it Clue…then you will have one.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    Thanks for the link Todd…
    As per usual with these far-right echo chamber stories…and the nincompoops who repeat them…when you look deeper there isn’t any there, there.

  11. Just Me says:

    Todd- so basically congress is once again proving why taking the time to debate and read the bill was in order but instead the democrats opted to ram it through with the proviso that we would get to know what was in it after it passed.

    Not sure that article helps the democrats look any better when it comes to passing the law.

  12. john personna says:

    @Just Me:

    Did you read Todd’s article? This is not about the original text of the bill, this is about cute back and forth in amendments.


    I am a middle class person. I have Kaiser insurance. How does this affect me?

  13. C. Clavin says:

    @ bill…
    I’m middle-class. I get insurance through my employer. How does this affect me in any way shape or form?
    I think you just enjoy big shit-sandwiches.

  14. Fog says:

    Just about any criticism of Obamacare that does not use the word “Massachusetts” can be safely disregarded as disingenuous dog doo.

  15. stonetools says:

    As usual, Ezra Klein’s blog is like Kryptonite to the right wing stupidity spewed out continuously about healthcare in general, and Obamacare in particular. Is great that Ezra Klein is such a stalwart defender, because as usual the Obama Admistration does such a piss poor job of defending its own successes.

    But no one is discussing “exempting” congressional staffers from Obamacare. They’re discussing creating some method through which the federal government can keep making its current contribution to the health insurance of congressional staffers.

    “Even if OPM rules against us,” one staffer said, “it’s inaccurate to imply that any talks are aimed at exempting federal employees from routine mandates of ACA since any talks are about resolving the unique bind that the Grassley amendment puts federal employees in.”

    This isn’t, in other words, an effort to flee Obamacare. It’s an effort to fix a drafting error that prevents the federal government from paying into insurance exchanges on behalf of congressional staffers who got caught up in a political controversy.

    This is some great scandal? Seriously? Oh well, cue a 39th attempt by the House Republicans to repeal “Obamacare”.

  16. JKB says:

    @C. Clavin:

    From Life Social Security article 1939

    The joker in this is that the Government has been spending Social Security tax money for ordinary expenses and putting its own I.O.U.’s (i.e., bonds) in the reserve fund. Thus when the time came to pay old-age annuities partly out of the interest on the bonds the money could be raised only by taxing the people a second time.

    When President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act just four years ago this month, he hailed it truly as a milestone in American history. Nobody, however, regarded the Act as much more than a long first step toward its objectives, a tentative plan to be revised and expanded with experience.

  17. C. Clavin says:

    @ JKB…
    As per usual…you missed the most important point:

    “…Nobody, however, regarded the Act as much more than a long first step toward its objectives, a tentative plan to be revised and expanded with experience…”

    Wow…the real world in which things evolve. What a concept.

  18. The speaker’s objective is to spare the entire country from the ravages of the president’s health care law.

    Boehner’s the JaMarcus Russell of Congress.

    Fail miserably once…..but try, try again.

    If I were a betting man, I’d say Russell gets a starting job with an NFL team before Boehner “spares” us from Obamacare……

  19. JKB says:

    Well, the Democrats passed it, amendments and all.

    the federal government can’t make its normal contribution to the insurance premiums of congressional staffers.

    Who wrote this bill? Congressional staffers.
    Who recommended their senator or congressperson vote for it? Congressional staffers.

    Sounds like a personal problem

    But Klein is wrong. It is not the federal government, but taxpayers who make the contribution. But the contribution should be made, but at the old amount chain-indexed to the “official” CPI, not adjusted for the PPACA mandated coverage. Staffers should bear the consequences of their actions.

  20. JKB says:

    @C. Clavin: Wow…the real world in which things evolve. What a concept.

    Evolve, yes. But rapid mutation, destroying normal function, and uncontrolled growth is a cancer. Cancer if not stopped and removed wastes and kills the organism.

  21. Tyrell says:

    @C. Clavin: There are proposals to start taxing insurance benefits that people receive at work. This could be unusual in that in many cases, any insurance that employees purchase including dental, vision, and other is taken off the gross pay to reduce tax liability.

  22. Stan says:

    @bill: “it’s a big shit sandwich for any middle class person who will wind up paying the brunt of it, as usual.”

    How will you be affected? I’m waiting breathlessly for your answer.

  23. Moosebreath says:

    Response outsourced to Jon Chait

    Key quote: “In both of these cases, Politico has done serious damage by spreading misinformation that no amount of corrections can fully undo. And also in both cases, the culprit is Politico’s lack of understanding of policy substance. Politico has some smart reporters working for it, but it seems that a news organization based on covering American politics as theater, with a premium on buzzy scoops, may be problematic.”

  24. C. Clavin says:

    “…But rapid mutation, destroying normal function, and uncontrolled growth is a cancer…”

    Ooooooohhhh…so scary.
    Obamacare is a fatal disease.
    I guess that means…to continue your pathetic attempt at metaphor…the Republic is going to die.
    Probably because of…dun, dun, dun…Death Panels.
    Seriously…are you 12 years old?

  25. C. Clavin says:

    @ Tyrell…

    “…There are proposals…”

    There are also proposals for background checks and immigration reform and invading Iran.
    Let me know how that works out.

  26. Rafer Janders says:


    There are proposals to start taxing insurance benefits that people receive at work.

    There are proposals to do everything and anything. Is everything that’s ever proposed by someone actually going to happen? No.

  27. john personna says:

    I am sure bill has just been told on Fox or Rush, 1001 times, that Obamacare is terrible for the middle class. Beyond that he does not know.

    (The case for Obamacare hurting marginal workers is better, but I think that all-told it still benefits them. If they do secure a full time position, it will have healthcare. Indeed when you dig down to who Congress is worried about covering with their amendment, it is their own marginal workers, or as it says above “especially low-paid junior aides”)

  28. john personna says:


    Taxing benefits is suggested by economists as a way to hold down costs, for what it’s worth.

    (One of the reasons insurance companies can demand high premiums now is that they are tax free.)

  29. Scot says:

    Congress tells the people this program is so good we will participate. The time comes for them to participate and they need to change it. Big suprise.

  30. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @stonetools: If only those bastard conservatives hadn’t exposed Klein’s little JournoList cabal. If it was still up and running, then The Right Message could have been put out in a coordinated effort and this story — like so many others — could have been nipped in the bud.

  31. john personna says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Right. You keep returning to that because it does not matter what is true, only who says it.

  32. @Jenos Idanian #13: Journolist again? How long are you going to let that hurt you? Don’t you think you’d be happier if you let it go?

  33. C. Clavin says:

    Jenos is just so dang cute…
    Fast and Furious!!!
    A conspiracy theory for every occasion.

  34. Sandman says:

    Ezra has spoken. Heed thy words.

  35. Barry says:

    @edmondo: “So “Congressional leaders in both parties” have finally admitted that the heathcare “reform” law is a pile of feces? Finally?”

    What part of Congress likes to get their own way do you not understand?

  36. Scott says:

    So apparently the whole hullabaloo was caused by Sen Grassley trying to be douchebag.

  37. wr says:

    @Scott: “So apparently the whole hullabaloo was caused by Sen Grassley trying to be douchebag”

    I think at this point in his career he really doesn’t have to try anymore.

  38. Blue Galangal says:

    @stonetools: I think it would actually be attempt #40.

  39. Scot says:

    I really don’t see how you can blame this on Grassley. Yes his admendment tried to expand the the provision to include all employees paid by the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House, But it failed. The law already included Members of Congress and their personal office staff.

  40. David M says:


    The Grassley amendment was a poorly drafted stunt, pretty standard fare for the GOP during the health care reform discussions. It’s a simple fix, two parts of the law are contradictory, so normally Congress would just clarify what should happen.

    The GOP (and Grassley) would rather Obamacare fail than act constructively, so this can easily be blamed them.

  41. Scot says:

    @David M: OK. It was a stunt. But I don’t think his amendment ever passed. I’m not sure where the law is contradictory on this issue but it is certainly flawed. The first flaw was glossed over as the law never defined when the provision took effect. It seems now everyone accepts 2014 but I wouldn’t be surprised if that isn’t argued again. The second issue seems to be the topic of whether or not the federal government can pay part of the employee premiums. I can speculate why this is an issue but I don’t know for certain. In any event. Are you saying Grassley wrote Section 1312(d)(3)(D) of the Affordable Care Act? Or that something he wrote (or even voted for) caused this mess?

  42. john personna says:


    Do you understand what Roberts really said? The penalty is a tax, but only for those who refuse to get insurance.

    And yeah, my premiums have been going up for 30 years … far longer than Obama has been around.

  43. C. Clavin says:

    @ bill…
    what the f’….you just discovered your premiums go up???
    Of course they do. Insurance companies rake in huge profits.
    Obamacare is an attempt to slow down those increases.
    Republicans want those increases to keep rising un-abated.
    I assume based upon all your other comments you support that as well.
    So what are you bitching about?

  44. john personna says:

    @C. Clavin:

    It might be related to this: Health Insurance Premium Spin

  45. Just Me says:


    The democrats in congress didn’t have to approve the amendment or vote on the bill or use reconciliation to avoid the regular committee review before a bill is passed.

    Once again do you guys fail to remember Pelosi saying that we had to pass the bill to figure out what was in it. The whole bill was rammed through without any thought to implementation and the various ramifications.

  46. Tyrell says:

    It seems to me that the whole process was flawed from the beginning. The logical thing to have done would be to assemble a committee of doctors, hospital workers, middle class blue-collar workers (yes plumbers), economists, and insurance analysts in a nice hotel for a weekend with a lot of good food.
    Limit them to a bill that is not over 4 pages long and written in everyday language that everyday people can understand instead of the slippery, fine print legalese that pervades our society.
    It should not be a program that requires a “survival” guide: I have seen at least two of these “survival guides” at bookstores and one is a best seller.
    That being said, I do think that Obama care can be tweaked, fine tuned, honed, adjusted, even overhauled over time. One thing that could be done would be to let states make changes. Another would be to privatize its administration. I do not want to spend hours on the phone listening to automated answers. Another would be a cafeteria plan and various expense factors. People who need maternity benefits should have to pay more. If I want dental coverage, I should pay more. People who smoke should pay more.