Congress gets an Obamacare waiver

Dean Clancy | Partner, Adams Auld LLC

Ready your pitchforks.

Reports indicate President Obama will soon confirm what many of us have long suspected, that Congress wants and will soon have a waiver from Obamacare.

You read that right.

We already knew that Congress intentionally crafted the health care law to permit the president to grant waivers to politically connected unions and corporations. And he has duly done so, more than 1,200 times. Now we learn that Congress also managed to wrangle a waiver for itself.

The monumental hypocrisy of this is breathtaking. It’s yet another example of how, more and more, the divide in American politics is not between left and right or between Republican and Democrat — it’s between us and them.

Unacknowledged for four years, and through two election cycles, this waiver news was first exposed last night in reports by Politico and CQ Roll Call.

Politico says the special treatment will be formally acknowledged next week by President Obama’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which is the federal government’s H.R. department, charged with administering federal benefits within the government.

According to CQ Roll Call, OPM will announce that it has decided that “the federal government will help pay the cost of premiums” on the new government-run “exchanges” for members of Congress and their staffs, who in turn will “not be eligible for the law’s tax credits and subsidies to buy insurance.”

This decision is a potential blockbuster for three reasons.

1) Its legality is extremely doubtful. In fact, it runs 180 degrees counter to what the statute seems to say, and to what its authors claim to have intended. People in exchanges are supposed to get federal exchange subsidies, not federal workplace subsidies. OPM is saying the opposite. By what legal authority?

2) If applied beyond Congress to the private sector, the decision would undermine the entire employer-provided health insurance system, a system that currently benefits half the U.S. population. If private employers can subsidize their workers’ health coverage inside the exchanges, which the statute appears to forbid, then they will have an incentive to “dump” their workers into the local exchange. (Could this be why President Obama suspended the employer mandate last month? In order to clear the way for massive employer dumping?)

3) The decision is massively unfair. Assuming point two is baseless speculation, no other Americans will get this special treatment.

We will have to see OPM’s official statement to know for sure. But in the meantime, we know this: the special exemption for Congress comes at Congress’s own request.

For months, congressional leaders of both parties have been privately and publicly urging OPM to give them financial relief from Obamacare, relief they’re afraid to vote for themselves.

Members claim the loss of the workplace subsidy combined with Obamacare-induced “rate shock” will devastate their employees and cause a Capitol Hill “brain drain.” (Poor them.)

The timing is intentional here. With the exchanges slated to begin enrolling people in less than 60 days, members wanted OPM to get the story out now, before the August recess, so they can use the next five weeks to try to calm down upset voters back home, before they have to return to D.C. and potentially cast difficult votes on the issue.

OPM’s expected ruling is like one member of the political class scratching another’s back.

Are they laughing at us?

And how do they think this hypocrisy will stand?

In 1816, Congress voted itself a 66-percent pay increase, effective immediately. To insiders, the blandly named Compensation Act seemed a long-overdue remedy to stingy paychecks. Poor pay, they claimed, had caused financial hardship and a “talent drain.” Sound familiar? Voters saw it differently. They dubbed it the Salary Grab, and in the ensuing election, two-thirds of congressional incumbents were replaced.

In the words of historians David and Jeanne Heidler: “The remarkable insularity of Washington’s political class had seldom been so vividly displayed.”

Until now.

With this decision, the only group left that’s not exempted from this law are us, the voters. Where’s our waiver?

One thing has not changed: the “remarkable insularity of Washington’s political class.” It’s captured beautifully in last night’s Politico headline: “Capitol Hill’s Obamacare Crisis Solved.” As if our pampered rulers were the victims. (Why do I suspect their true “crisis” is only just beginning?)

Dear Congress: Permit me to offer some advice. Cancel your five-week vacation. Stay in Washington. Do the following:

1) Grant all Americans an Obamacare waiver, by at least delaying the law.

2) Enact true, patient-centered reforms that lower costs.

3) Apply these reforms — and all laws — to yourselves.

If you don’t, we’ll be waiting for you back home. With our pitchforks.

Dean Clancy is Vice President for Public Policy at FreedomWorks, a service center to a grassroots network of more than six million Americans who believe in individual liberty and constitutionally limited government.

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