Politics

Congress may get fined by its own health-care law

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Jonathan Strong
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      Jonathan Strong

      Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.

Congress may be fined tens of millions of dollars a year under its own health-care law, in part because the bill dumps members of Congress and their staffs from their current health-care plans.

But no one really knows for sure what the bill does, not even the experts. For instance, exactly who qualifies as an “employer” — and therefore is subject to fines up to $3,000 per employee — is undefined in the bill.

If Congress were subject to a $3,000 fine for each of its employees, it would need to shell out approximately $50 million each year to Uncle Sam. Congress’s research arm, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), informally confirmed the possibility to Republican aides.

Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s top health-care cabinet official, will be responsible for establishing most of the details of how the law is implemented. Many Republicans who have raised the issue of Congress’s fining itself believe Sebelius likely will exempt Congress with a regulation narrowly defining “employer,” for instance.

Still, the possibility of the fines, and the uncertainty surrounding them, are drawing heckles from the health-care law’s critics.

“That’s the irony — here we may be the first major employer in the country to be fined for not providing proper health insurance for our employees,” Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, told The Daily Caller while laughing. “Isn’t that contrary to the very premise of the bill?”

State and local governments may be on the hook for the fines, but unlike for members of Congress and their staffs, the health-care bill doesn’t specifically dump them from their health-care plans.

Before Congress incurs any fines, a complex series of events would be required to happen under the law. Generally speaking, a lower-tier aide — one not making a six-figure salary like some 2,000 House employees — would have to apply for government subsidies. The way the law works is that employers incur a $2,000 or $3,000 fine for each employee, depending on the circumstances, if only one of their employees obtains the subsidies.

So one lowly staff assistant could think he’s just getting some health-care help, while actually triggering a $50 million annual fine for Congress.

On the issue of the fines, CRS confirmed to Republican aides that the bill does not specify whether Congress would be considered an “employer” under the bill, thus triggering the coverage responsibilities and potential fines.

Previously, CRS explained why it’s “unclear” whether members of Congress and their staff will be able to keep their current health-care plans in an 8,100-word memo.

In that case, CRS argues that under standard lawyerly methods for reading laws, Congress should have been dumped from its current health-care coverage already. Nothing’s changed, though. The CRS memo notes that the law does not designate a government authority to resolve uncertainties, such as whether Congress is on the hook for $50 million a year.

The uncertainties surrounding the health-care law for just Congress’s health-care coverage are driving questions about how the rest of America will fare when its provisions kick into turbo in coming years.

“This is just terribly written legislation,” Lungren said, attributing many of the “drafting errors” and such to the unorthodox process by which the law was passed. “I doubt that when the senators voted on the bill they thought that was going to be the completed project. They needed to get their number of votes and they were going to do it whatever way they could and then anticipated a conference that somehow would have worked out the differences between the House and the Senate version. And because we had so few votes in both the House and the Senate, they did this other thing.”

That “other thing” was passing the Senate bill into law and a “fixes” bill hamstrung by the limitations of the budget reconciliation process which only requires a majority, not super-majority, vote in the Senate.