House Obamacare vote makes extra sure Treasury keeps its word

(AP Photo/Yankton Press & Dakotan, Kelly Hertz)
(AP Photo/Yankton Press & Dakotan, Kelly Hertz)

Turns out some fires are easier to put out than others. But the House just couldn’t let this one die.

Voting 410-0 (!) on Tuesday, the House passed legislation to make extra sure that volunteer fire departments are not subject to the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate – after the U.S. Treasury assured Congress they wouldn’t.

To cap the end-of-the-year tumult that was the rollout of the White House’s signature policy, Treasury received a flood of individual letters from indignant lawmakers rushing to the defense of volunteer firefighters.

Republicans had unearthed an easy attack on the health-care law that even Democrats would get behind. Everyone supports local heroes. And imagine the campaign ads if they didn’t.

The issue is that, for tax purposes, volunteer firefighters are considered full-time employees. Republicans and Democrats demanded clarification: Would their cash-strapped hometown fire departments be forced to count their volunteers toward the law’s requirement that businesses over 50 employees offer health coverage?

The answer, predictably, was no. The Treasury Department said in January in letters sent to every member of Congress who had asked – there were close to three dozen separate inquiries – that a regulation was forthcoming to clarify volunteer firefighters would “generally” be exempt.

“This was a significant amount of interest in comparison with other issues,” confirmed a Treasury spokeswoman at the time.

But still lawmakers from both parties pressed on with the vote to codify Treasury’s promise.

Perhaps Smokey Bear’s updated motto should be: “Only Bipartisanship Can Prevent Artificial Policy Crises.”

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.

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