Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.25.13

Is Congress Trying to Exempt Itself From Obamacare?

The new health care law requires Congress to buy insurance through the exchanges. That may be a problem.

Bit of a stir this morning, as Politico reports that Congress is considering exempting its staff from an Obamacare provision which will require all congressmen and staffers to get their health insurance through the exchanges.  Apparently, it's not clear that the government is authorized to actually pay for this insurance, meaning that the folks on Capitol Hill might have to buy insurance out of their own pocket.  (The ruling from the Office of Personnel Management, which governs this sort of question, is still pending.)

As you can imagine, Congress and their staffers are not happy about the prospect of paying for their own health insurance.  So Politico reports that they're discussing maybe getting together and offering themselves a little relief from the law.  Apparently, it's a lot easier to get Congress to talk about exempting themselves from Obamacare than it is to get them to talk about exempting the millions of other Americans who will be affected.

Ezra Klein argues that no, they're not talking about exempting themselves from Obamacare, just this specific provision, which Klein calls "a drafting error".  In response to which, I'd offer two observations:

First, this is, in fact, about exempting themselves from Obamacare.  This is a provision of Obamacare.  It is in the bill.  You may think that it shouldn't be in the bill, or that it shouldn't be in the bill in the way that it's written.  But--assuming that these discussions are actually happening--Congress is considering exempting itself from the one provision of the bill that actually directly affects Congress.  As far as they're concerned, this is exempting themselves from Obamacare; the rest of the bill affects Hill staffers only indirectly.  

Furthermore, this exemption is important.  There are very good reasons to require Congress to "eat their own cooking", especially on a big bill like this.  At least one source in the Politico article says that they're considering junking this provision entirely and moving Congress and staffers back to the federal employee benefits system.  This would be good for them, but bad for the rest of us, and they should be ashamed to even consider it.

The second point I'd make is that there seems to be a growing consensus among Obamacare's supporters that all problems with the law are due to either Republican opposition, or "drafting errors".  No tax subsidies in the bill for federal exchanges?  Drafting error.  Implementation running behind?  Don't blame HHS, blame Republicans.  You would think that the PPACA had delegated responsibility for implementation to the Republican National Committee, rather than the Department of Health and Human Services.

Opponents have long been saying that the bill was basically one long drafting error, and now its supporters seem to be suggesting that they're right.  Have we now arrived at a point where the optimistic case for the bill that was an incredibly sloppy first draft that obviously required the active cooperation of the opposition to make it work?  And if so, has this made anyone question the wisdom of passing it in the first place?  If you want to get to the other side of a deep ravine, and the only way to do so is to ride a unicycle across a tightrope while juggling burning torches, maybe it's time to rethink your goal.  And if you decide to go ahead, you probably shouldn't blame anyone else if you go down in flames.

Of course, this particular fooforaw may be a tempest in a teapot: OPM may rule that they can offer subsidies to staffers.  But we shouldn't forget this.  If Congress wants to exempt itself from the Obamacare exchanges, it should go ahead and offer the same relief to everyone else. There are a lot of people out there at risk of losing their employer health insurance and being forced onto the exchanges.  Surely they deserve the same consideration as Congress.