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From Politico to ‘Hannity’: The trajectory of Congress’s Obamacare ‘exemption’ myth

As noted in this space yesterday, Politico didn’t exactly stand by its story that Congress was exploring an exemption for its employees from Obamacare. In subsequent articles, the nonstop news site stayed away from the “exemption” language, as other outlets cautioned that the story had gone overboard.

No matter: Once an outlet of the mainstream media mentions “Congress,” “Obamacare” and “exemption” in the same breath, there’s no plucking it out of the country’s news stream. Especially when Fox News is around.

Several days after Politico’s story surfaced, “The Five,” a fun roundtable discussion program on Fox News, was chatting about this outrage, with co-host Dana Perino in the role of analyst: “So President Obama’s health-care legislation is evidently so awful that even members of his own party were trying to get out of it. Reports are swirling about lawmakers having hush-hush talks about whether they think it’s okay for members of Congress and most of their aides to be exempt from portions of Obamacare. Americans obviously don’t have that luxury.”

On it went.

Of course, the media throughout the spring was focused on three more promising scandals/non-scandals — the IRS, Benghazi, snooping on news organizations — leaving little air for the Obamacare-exemption scandal. Yet the story line proved to be quite a soldier, braving the summer and blazing into the fall. Working backward in time, here are some highlights.

Last Saturday on Fox News’s “Journal Editorial Report,” commentator Jason Riley said, “There are senators like Tom Coburn and David Vitter who have put together these things, such as the individual mandate, using that as leverage … such as pointing out how members of Congress and their staff are trying to put loopholes in the law that exempt them from some of the provisions. That is where Obamacare is vulnerable. And in the short run, that’s where the leverage is to be had and used to push back.

On Sept. 24, Fox News contributor (and Washington Post columnist) Charles Krauthammer said on “Fox Special Report with Bret Baier”: “This, what we’re seeing tonight, is pure theater. It will have no effect. I think what might have an effect, if you want to attach something on to the resolution. You got to have something that the country entirely agrees with. Attach on to this a provision that no one in Congress and no staffer in Congress is going to be exempt from all of the provisions of Obamacare and they will not be eligible for any subsidies. And that will advertise to the country — because this is all theater anyway and we’re trying to make a point — it would make a point of the utter hypocrisy of the people in Congress, the Democrats in Congress who passed it for everybody else but exempted themselves. That I think would be an effective point. But defunding it is not going to happen.”

On Sept. 9, Sean Hannity hosted Tea Party activist Jenny Beth Martin and asked about her attack on Obamacare: “All right, so big labor has been exempted. Washington has been exempted. Congress has been exempted. This is to exempt the American people?”

On Aug. 20, Hannity hosted Martin, who said this: “Yes, if he funds it, if he votes to pay for this law, it’s the same thing as voting for the law. Either you are against the law and you don’t think it’s the right thing for America and our tax money shouldn’t be going for it, or you’re spending our tax money on it and you must be okay with the law. If it’s not good enough for big business, who has had a delay, it’s not good enough for big government, who has been — Congress and their staff had been exempted, it’s not going good enough for America.”

On Aug. 13, Hannity asked a pair of guests: “Let me ask you a question. Isn’t it just morally wrong that these guys exempt themselves from the very laws and burdens they’re placing on the rest of us? Isn’t that wrong?”

On Aug. 5, Fox News host Greta Van Susteren said: “Congress and the president have a lot of nerve. Congress passing Obamacare and President Obama then signing a law that was supposed to cover everybody. Members of Congress didn’t bother to read the law before they passed it, and now they discovered they don’t like it. They surely don’t want it for themselves or for their staff. So guess what they did? They sneaked behind closed doors and agreed among themselves, and then went to President Obama, and the president then gave them a special exemption from the OPM that exempts them from the law that they passed themselves. President Obama is not giving you that special exemption.”

Just how true is any of this?

For a useful fact-check, let’s rely on a primary source. On Aug. 7, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a proposed rule outlining how health-care benefits would be organized for members of Congress and their staffers. For Federal Register fare, it’s pretty straightforward. It starts off by explaining the legislative/regulatory pickle in which the government found itself vis-à-vis congressional health benefits, thanks to this provision of the Affordable Care Act: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law . . . the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are — (I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or (II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act).”

The shorthand for that mandate is this: From here on out, lawmakers and staffers must get off of their cushy Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) plans and venture out into Obamacare’s exchanges. The OPM proposed rule does just that, in precise legal terminology:

The following employees are not eligible to purchase a health benefit plan for which OPM contracts or which OPM approves under this subsection, but may purchase health benefit plans, as defined in 5 U.S.C. 8901(6), that are offered by an Exchange, pursuant to §1312(d)(3)(D) of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Public Law 111-148, as amended by the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, Public Law 111-152 (the Affordable Care Act or the Act)

Welcome to Obamacare, Capitol Hill. The proposed rule also makes clear that congressional types will continue receiving their employer contributions to their health-care insurance — just as all those folks with existing employer-provided insurance programs do. In fact, that’s what this exercise has been about from the beginning: How to comply with the ACA’s directive that Congress enroll in Obamacare’s exchanges while preserving the employer contributions to which these hard workers are entitled.

The net result of all this maneuvering is a hassle — not a handout — for Hill workers. They have to find a new plan and do a lot of fresh paperwork. So they’re “exempt” only from convenience. Note that OPM’s highly scannable proposed rule preceded much of the unequivocal discussion of this “exemption,” as highlighted above.

It’s tempting to fantasize about how the world would be different if only Politico had chosen a different headline for that initial story. Instead of “Lawmakers, aides may get Obamacare exemption,” the site could have gone another formulation, like “Hill tries to save lawmakers, staffers from massive benefits cut.”