During our last tea party meeting (May 21st), we discussed a Tea Party Patriot’s (TPP) initiative urging tea parties to participate in active demonstrations on the 17th of June against US Senators and/or Representatives exempting themselves from the mandates of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Some of our members said that they would be willing, if possible to participate in a demonstration. On the face of it, it certainly seems fair that Congress be under the same laws as the rest of Americans. So, I decided that I would do some research into congressional participation or non-participation in Obamacare. I found that, like most things in government, things are not as clear and simple as it might seem at first glance. So, here is some history.
US Senator from Iowa, Chuck Grassley (along with all the Republican members of Congress) tried very hard to scuttle Obamacare from its inception. Unfortunately, in spite of overwhelming disapproval by the American people, the Democrat dominated Senate and House rammed the over 2000 page legislation through with unethical strategies of secret deals, political bribery, intimidation and out right strong arm tactics.
In 2009, once it was clear that the legislation would be adopted, in a last ditch effort to derail Obamacare, Senator Grassley insisted that the law require Congress to participate under the same mandate as every other American. Surprisingly, the Democrat majority embraced his amendment (probably to show an illusion of bipartisan support for the bill). Grassley’s amendment meant that Congress had to select their healthcare plan from an Obamacare healthcare exchange instead of from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) that serves more than 8 million federal employees. Grassley expected that members of Congress and their staffs would use the government subsidies provided through FEHBP to fund their healthcare through Obamacare. However, the version of the amendment that became part of the Obamacare package did not specify where the subsidies, if any would come for congressional employees. Without clarification, this meant Congress and their staffs would have to pay additional thousands of dollars for unsubsidized healthcare premiums. Remember, the law mandates that Congress members and staff must participate in the exchanges in order to be eligible for any financial assistance to pay for premiums. Naturally, Grassley and his congressional colleagues were very concerned that their employees would lose their current levels of healthcare coverage because of the radical increase in costs. The result might have been losing some valuable employees. Congress appealed to the Obama administration to clarify this apparent oversight.
On August 7th, 2013, the administration’s US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) declared that since they are federal employees, Congress members and their staffs would be eligible for an employer (the federal government) contribution to help pay for their healthcare premiums. However, according to the wording within Obamacare, the only legal way for this to happen is if the Congress member and staff are considered as a small business rather than as individuals.
OPM mandated that Congress and their staffs were required to go through the small business portion of the Washington DC Exchange (called SHOP). The problem is the DC Exchange defines a small business as any business with less than 50 employees. Although some members of Congress maintain staffs of less than 50, each Congress member is not considered as a small business and the US Congress employs thousands. After a lawsuit was filed, the DC health officials admitted that Congress does not fall within the small business definition of their exchange. However, OPM decided that the limitation of 50 employees for small businesses was not valid. I was surprised to learn that the Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as anything from 1500 to 50 employees depending upon what the business does. DC later declared that the OPM guidance for federal employees and the size of small businesses overrides the DC law and thus Congress can utilize its Small Business Exchange.
So, is Congress participating in Obamacare? YES! Is it legal for FEHBP to subsidize the premiums for Congress members and their staff? According to the Obama Administration’s OPM and the DC health officials, YES. According to Judicial Watch and TPP, NO. This sounds like something the courts will have to decide.
In my view, after investigating the issue, the main culprit is Obamacare and an administration that is prone to make its own laws without appealing to Congress. Given the somewhat nebulous and generalized nature of Obamacare, Senator Grassley and other members of Congress are attempting to navigate through a flawed, dangerous healthcare mandate that hopefully will crumble from its own weight or judicial decisions in the near future.
It is tempting to completely paint the US Congress in dark colors. Certainly, our forefathers would approve of our tea party’s conservative, rather suspicious view of all things government. But, as potentially threatening as it is to individual freedoms, government is a necessity and as much as possible, we need to be fair with our criticisms. The investigation I did was strictly via the internet, so there could be facts of which I am not aware. However, I think my results show that we must be as aware as possible of any situation for which we decide to take rather drastic action such as even peaceful demonstrating. We must be certain that we are focusing our criticism and/or actions against or in support of the proper person, party or administration.