Commentary Magazine


ObamaCare and the Congressional Circus

Last night, Politico published what seemed like quite the scoop: members of Congress from both parties were holding secret negotiations with the aim of passing legislation that would exempt their staffers from unwieldy ObamaCare rules. The backlash was immediate, and virtually guaranteed that whether or not the Politico story got it right (it didn’t), it would at least have the effect of snuffing out whatever legislation was being contemplated.

The countdown began, and ended this afternoon when Harry Reid announced that the problem they spent months in secret negotiations trying to fix doesn’t actually exist, in his expert opinion, and thus would not require legislation that reeked of hypocrisy. So what actually happened? As Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post, during the ObamaCare negotiations Chuck Grassley had proposed, and Congress subsequently passed, an amendment that requires congressional offices to purchase their health insurance policies from the insurance exchanges set up by ObamaCare. Grassley’s amendment was designed to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to reject part of ObamaCare as good enough for the ragged masses but not for them. Democrats, instead, accepted the amendment.

Democrats thought they had won the battle by meeting Grassley’s dare head-on. But there was a problem: the law excludes from those exchanges, in most cases, large employers–a category that includes the federal government. Which meant Hill staffers might have to foot the entire bill for their health insurance–of course made even more expensive thanks to ObamaCare–because the Grassley amendment, which Democrats so proudly accepted, put them into a strange new category Klein refers to as a regulatory limbo. They’ve been arguing ever since over what this means, with the fear that their staffers will all quit on them when they see the price tag on their shiny new health insurance plans.

In other words, the United States Congress has no idea what the law says or how to comply with it. But at least they’re not hypocrites, so don’t you feel better?

Klein is fairly sanguine about the whole thing, since it turned out to just be a terrible misunderstanding. But I actually think that’s the story. Congress started by trying to pass a massive bureaucratic overhaul of nearly one-fifth of the American economy, stared blankly at thousands of pages of regulations they wouldn’t even consider reading, and voted to make it the law of the land. Along the way, they treated the amendment process like a game of frat house beer pong, and their personal pride determined which amendments got through. Unsurprisingly, they passed amendments that made a hash of the law, because they didn’t read the law before enacting it.

When Nancy Pelosi suggested that it would just be tremendously exciting if no one looked at the bill and then we all found out together afterward to what extent Congress had just wrecked an entire industry, she was speaking for members of Congress as well as the public. So when Congress found out what Congress had wrought, they got to work trying to undo part of what they had done (the part, naturally, that affected them the most).

But that brought up another problem (just as we Jews famously answer questions with questions, so Congress “solves” problems with other problems): namely, that it would be quite a bummer if the public found out what they were up to. That’s because there are only two possible explanations for what they were doing, and neither sounded good. Either it would be exposed that they had no idea what was in the health care bill they passed, or it would seem like they did and now were trying to weasel out of part of it. And of course, by doing this in secret in a town where there are no secrets, they ensured the public would have both reactions.

Now that the public found out, Reid says there’s no need to take any action, that the law as written won’t do what they thought it might (he’s probably right). But Reid is a senator, not emperor, so he doesn’t get to make that decision–it’s up to the Office of Personnel Management. Reid’s statement, Klein notes, “doesn’t say much about what will happen if OPM doesn’t rule as Reid hopes.” It’s almost as if he’s not planning ahead. Klein continues:

If OPM doesn’t rule as Reid expects, I’ll be surprised to see this get fixed, at least quickly. Republicans view any chaos around Obamacare as a win for them. As of today, they’re telling me that that even extends to chaos caused by a Republican senator’s amendment that mainly effects (sic) their health insurance. I don’t think they’ll hold out long on that if it turns out they actually have to shoulder the full cost of their premiums. But it will be tough to preemptively back down too.

More games, more bluffing, more staring contests in response to the chaos they’ve created. Welcome to Congress.

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