John Bresnahan, a senior congressional reporter at Politico, nabbed a choice Capitol Hill scoop today on the politics of the government shutdown. The backdrop for the story was the attempt of House Speaker John Boehner to round up support for a bill eliminating alleged special health-care treatment for congressional members and staffers.
As Bresnahan noted, Boehner issued an appeal on the House floor: “Why don’t we make sure that every American is treated just like we are?” The proposal was to cut off the subsidies that congressional personnel would be entitled to receive as they enroll in Obamacare’s insurance exchanges.
And yet! Boehner, in private discussions over recent months, has been working with Democratic leaders to preserve those very subsidies, Politico reports. It’s a great Washington moment: Boehner was for the subsidies before he was against them. That revelation comes from documents that were shared with Politico by, well, you be the judge:
Boehner and his aides worked for months with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and others, to save these very same, long-standing subsidies, according to documents and e-mails provided to POLITICO. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was also aware of these discussions, the documents show.
The story goes into extensive and scintillating detail on the efforts of Boehner and his staffers to resolve the issue — the parties even attempted to devise a “cover story” for a meeting with President Obama, so that no one would find out that they were talking about this sensitive matter with the administration. Such a meeting never materialized. What the Politico story doesn’t address, however, is the role that Politico itself played in teaching people like Boehner just how explosive and politically profitable this “exemption” story could be.
On April 24, 2012, Bresnahan and Politico colleague Jake Sherman scooped the first in this series of stories. Its headline read, “Lawmakers, aides may get Obamacare exemption.” Kaboom: The story landed in a fissile news bed of partisan sensitivity, and the mere notion that privileged Capitol Hill types would attempt to cut a special deal for themselves ignited Washington. Five-thousand six-hundred and forty-seven tweets, 105,000 Facebook likes, and an untold number of followup blog posts from conservative news sites piled on. A post on the Heritage Foundation’s site riffed:
For veteran Capitol Hill watchers, shenanigans behind closed doors to enable Congress and its staffers to escape Obamacare come as no surprise. After all, the national health care law was fashioned through repulsive backroom dealing (the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” etc.) that set a record for arrogance and contempt of popular opinion. Favored businesses and unions got special exemptions (more than 1,200 waivers) from Obamacare’s insurance rules. So consider today’s Politico revelation just marquee for a rerun of a tiresome old movie: one set of rules for Congress and another set of rules for the rest of us.
If Congress quietly wants to exempt itself from Obamacare, that’s great—so long as it includes the rest of us in that midnight amendment.
They were all trafficking a story that got it wrong. It stated the following: “Congressional leaders in both parties are engaged in high-level, confidential talks about exempting lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides from the insurance exchanges they are mandated to join as part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, sources in both parties said.”
Except the notion of exempting anyone on Capitol Hill from anything wasn’t happening. As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein clinically explained in a long-ago blog post, the problem was way too boring, complicated and consequence-less to have precipitated all the outrage. The nub of it is that in the negotiations over the Affordable Care Act, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, determined to stick it to the opposition, authored a provision mandating that lawmakers and staffers, since they love Obamacare so much, must join the health-care exchanges. Democrats assented.
As Klein explained, the law set up a bind:
Large employers — defined in the law as employers with more than 100 employees — aren’t allowed onto the insurance exchanges until 2017, and only then if a state makes an affirmative decision to let them in. But the federal government is the largest employer in the country. So Grassley’s amendment means that the largest employer in the country is required to put some of its employees — the ones working for Congress — on the exchanges. But the exchanges don’t have any procedures for handling premium contributions for large employers.
FactCheck.org has an extensive rundown of the particulars here.
For months, congressional officials and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) worked toward a regulatory solution whereby Capitol Hillers get their insurance on the exchanges while preserving employer contributions. Nothing exemptive about that. “Because of poorly written language in the Senate, it had to be made clear through the regulatory process the intent of the law,” says Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, told the Erik Wemple Blog. “This was never any effort to exempt members of Congress or their staffs but rather to ensure that the intent of the law was ultimately upheld.”
Though Politico never appended a correction to its “exemption” story, it later sort of acknowledged that it may have overreached. One day later, it published a followup under this headline: “John Boehner hits Dems on proposed Obamacare fix.” No more talk of an Obamacare “exemption.”
May it never be said that Politico isn’t the most opportunistic news organization in the land. Think about the turns here. The site starts off by hyping an “exemption” story that delivers Republican talking points about the party’s most reviled piece of legislation. The story animates the right into a full blog-posting convulsion. Republican politicians take note. Having sampled the political appeal of the issue via Politico, Boehner unfurls it in the final hours of a showdown over government funding. Next day, Politico knifes Boehner. That’s my Politico.
Even more stunning is the apparent sourcing reversal. Though Politico’s “exemption” story of April ostensibly relies on sources from “both parties,” it pushes a Republican point of view. Talk of the “exemption,” after all, caused political problems for the Obamacare community. Yet when anti-Boehner sources — presumably Democrats — were looking to hammer Boehner for apparent hypocrisy in taking aim at the health-care subsidies, who did they leak to? That, again, is my Politico!