The right gets confused by its own lie

Right-wing groups claim Congress is exempted from Obamacare. But five months ago, they had a very different story

Topics: Obamacare, Freedomworks, GOP Civil War, Ted Cruz, Health Care, Congress,

The right gets confused by its own lieTed Cruz (Credit: AP/David J. Phillip)

A good lie never dies, and so it is that we get Texas Sen. Ted Cruz telling Mary Matalin, sitting in for Laura Ingraham, Monday: “I think it is disgraceful that President Obama, in just a lawless move, just exempted Congress [from Obamacare].”

“If Congress gets a pass on Obamacare, you should, too,” the conservative group Freedomworks, which has been leading the push to defund the health law, demands. Then there’s John Cornyn, the number two Senate Republican, along with the Wall Street Journal editorial board and  Fox News, not to mention former senator and current Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and all the rest. A Washington Times columnist even called it “treason.”

Sadly, but not surprisingly, they’re all lying to you. Congress did not, and never has, “exempted” itself from Obamacare. Here’s the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, one of the smartest writers on health care policy anywhere:



As is often the case with these arguments, this one contains an element of truth. Obamacare really does treat congressional employees differently from other people. But that’s because of an amendment written by Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican. The amendment—almost certainly a political stunt designed to embarrass the Democrats—created an ambiguity in the law that the Obama administration had to clarify. Last week the administration issued a ruling and, sure enough, it is getting political grief over it. But there’s no reason it should.

Grassley offered an amendment that would kick members of Congress and their staffers off the federal employee health plan and make them enroll in the new health insurance exchanges, which are mostly for individuals who don’t get employer coverage. If not for his amendment, their insurance scheme wouldn’t have changed at all. Republicans expected Democrats would vote it down, thus giving them an opening to attack the law, but Democrats called the bluff and passed the amendment.

But what wasn’t resolved, until last week, was whether members of Congress and their employees would still get the money the government had been contributing to their health insurance premiums as their employer. Last week, the administration ruled: They would get to keep the employer contribution. That’s it.

So, in fact, members of Congress are still going to be required to use the Obamacare-created health insurance exchanges. That’s why Politifact called the exemption myth a “Pants on Fire” and FactCheck.org wrote, “No. Congress members and staffers will be required to buy insurance through the exchanges on Jan. 1.” For more, check out Ezra Klein, Steve Benen, and Jon Chait, who calls it a “toxic combination of ignorance and bad faith that has characterized the right’s approach to Obamacare.”

Don’t believe the liberal or even mainstream “liberal” media? Then take it from FreedomWorks. That’s right, the very same conservative advocacy group that’s now telling conservatives to “ready your pitchforks” over the alleged congressional exemption once said the polar exact diametrical opposite.

No, Congress Is Not Exempt From Obamacare,” reads the headline from an April 28 blog post on the group’s website from Loren Heal, who writes of the controversy over the Grassley Amendment:

Congress is not only covered by Obamacare, but members and staff can be offered only plans that are either created by Obamacare or are offered through an exchange. That isn’t how the law works for most people, but it’s not exempting anyone — it’s more restrictive.

In fact, FreedomWorks was so sure then that Congress wasn’t getting an exemption that they demanded “Politico print a retraction” after writing “a carefully crafted story” that claimed members of Congress were in secret talks to exempt themselves from Obamacare. “It isn’t true,” Heal continued. He was right then when he debunked it. That’s how we know they’re lying, and not just ignorant.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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