Congress’s Absurd Debate Over Its Obamacare ‘Exemption’

House Republicans are having trouble deciding whether it’s a good idea to sacrifice their staffs’ health-care benefits at the altar of opposing Obamacare. In their defense, deciding between whether to abandon a baldly political argument or alienate your own employees is no easy choice.

For months, Republicans have argued that the Barack Obama administration exempted members of Congress and their staffs from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, allowing their insurance premiums to continue being paid by the government. A House proposal this morning would have allowed those employer contributions for staff but not for members of Congress or the president.

Some Republicans objected to the compromise, leading the House leadership to propose a new bill that once again strips staff of their health benefits. This afternoon, that bill appeared headed for a vote. This evening, that vote was canceled.

To see the problem, it’s necessary to first understand the utter fallacy of the Republicans’ basic complaint. Obamacare created state health-insurance exchanges expressly for people who don’t get coverage through their employers. At the insistence of Republican Senator Charles Grassley, it made one exception when the law was written: Members of Congress and their staffs would also have to use the exchanges. (The idea seems to have been to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to object to the idea. Instead, they embraced it.)

That created a wrinkle: The law did not say whether the government, which pays the premiums for congressional staff, could keep paying them for exchange-based coverage.

So when the Office of Personnel Management, which handles employee benefits for Congress, ruled that the government could continue paying the premiums for members and staff, it wasn’t creating an exemption; it was trying to make sense of one that Republicans had already made.

Yet for Republicans, the idea that Congress would get special treatment, whatever the reason, was grounds for a new attack on Obamacare. The personnel ruling became, in the words of Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, “a special subsidy to purchase health insurance on the Obamacare Exchange unavailable to every other American.”

Of course it was unavailable to every other American: No other American with employer-based coverage is required to use an exchange. In a world of partly false and half-false attacks on Obamacare, the congressional “exemption” is a purebred.

It also carries a price. By opposing the nonexistent exemption, House Republicans are opposing a basic health-insurance benefit for their own employees.

There may be merit in leading members of Congress and the administration onto the health-insurance exchanges, to give them a close look at how well or how poorly the system works and what might be done to improve it. But there’s no wisdom in stripping them or staff members of their existing benefits -- especially if the purpose is simply to nurture a fabricated complaint about the law.