Calling GOP's bluff: Will lawmakers and their aides opt out of Obamacare?

Conservatives are encouraging folks to skip the plan -- but GOP members and staffs may not be so eager (UPDATED)

By Brian Beutler
Published August 21, 2013 6:20PM (EDT)
Rand Paul, Ted Cruz                                 (AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Rand Paul, Ted Cruz (AP/Timothy D. Easley/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

When the enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges opens just over a month from now, Congress won't be "exempt" as Republicans like to claim.

Far from it, they'll also be putting the right's commitment to breaking Obamacare -- particularly by encouraging folks to opt out of the exchanges -- to the test.

As employees of a large employer (the largest in the country, actually) members and their staffs will be uniquely targeted by a requirement that they ditch their current policies and choose new coverage in "Obamacare." They'll get a pretty good deal. Both members and their aides will be able to keep the federal government's existing 75 percent contribution toward their insurance premiums.

Here's a quick primer for the uninitiated. During the drafting of the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, tried to trap Democrats by introducing an amendment requiring that most members and aides switch their health benefits from their existing coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan to one of the plans offered on a state-based insurance exchange. The idea was that Democrats would vote it down (for both principled and self-interested reasons) and Republicans would have a new talking point: Democrats want Obamacare for thee, but not for me.

Well, Democrats called his bluff, adopted the amendment and it is now the law. An ambiguity in the legislative text created confusion as to whether members and aides would be able to keep their tax preferred employer premium contributions and the Obama administration ruled earlier this month that indeed they will.

That decision is what Republicans are referring to when they falsely claim the government "exempted" Congress from Obamacare. It would be more fair to say Congress gets special treatment in Obamacare (nobody else in the exchanges gets to contribute pre-tax employer dollars toward their costs), but as it turns out, that's what Grassley himself intended when he drafted the amendment, as his own plain-text description of the provision makes clear.

Which brings us to the present, and a potential dilemma for some conservative members, and many more of their aides.

A quick point of clarification: No member of Congress or aide has to my knowledge publicly endorsed conservative activist efforts to convince people (especially young people) to pay the small penalty and skip Obamacare. But conservative members on the Hill are closely aligned with those same activists on every other anti-Obamacare campaign, and their general commitment to sabotaging the law isn't in doubt.

And that's why when open enrollment begins on Oct. 1, it will test their sincerity. If conservatives genuinely believe that Obamacare is a threat to the country they will extend their campaigns to convince people to skip Obamacare from nameless powerless young people to elected officials and their aides. And if those members and aides have the courage of their convictions they'll follow suit. To the extent that none of this happens -- that conservative groups keep quiet, and conservative members and aides enroll in the exchanges -- it'll expose the right's anti-Obamacare activism as a shallow enterprise undertaken by people who are happy to see millions go without insurance, so long as it's not themselves or their families.

I asked Freedomworks vice president Dean Clancy whether he would ask Republican elected officials to "burn their Obamacare cards" via email this morning (see update below).

Of course, a bunch of these members, and even a lot of their aides, will have easy ways around the conundrum. Many of them are married to people who'll be able to add their congressional spouses to their employer-provided plans.

But not all of them. Personally I hope everyone implicated here remains insured, both for their own good and the good of the law. But they will be helping to prop up D.C.'s own insurance exchange if they do. And if being insured is so important that Republicans on the Hill are willing to bolster Obamacare here in the Beltway, it's worth asking why they're trying to damage it everywhere else.

Updated: Clancy responded to my request after this post was initially published.

He replies: "Ideally, they will just pay the fine rather than go into the exchange for coverage. That’s what we hope all Americans will do, including Hill folks. But at the end of the day, we think everyone should do whatever’s best for them and their families. I mean, that’s our whole point: People should be free. As long as Congress insists on retaining its special health insurance subsidy, which nobody else gets, it’s kind of hard to sympathize with them, you know? My goal is to see members and staff coming back from recess and burning their Obamacare cards on the Capitol steps while singing, 'All We Are Saying Is Give Freedom a Chance.'”

This piece originally suggested that some lower-income Congressional staffers would qualify for two subsidies in the ACA's insurance markets. According to the administration's ruling, all staffers will qualify for the same federal employer premium contribution in lieu of the ACA's premium tax credits. We regret the error.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Affordable Care Act Americans For Prosperity Freedomworks Marco Rubio Mike Lee Obamacare Ted Cruz