As heard on Fox: Do you understand the nature of that alleged health care “exemption?”


Glenn Kessler explains in the Post: Conservative voters constantly hear misinformation on Fox.

With that in mind, we learned something about Obamacare from reading Glenn Kessler this Sunday.

Kessler runs the Washington Post’s Fact Checker site. Each Sunday, one of his reports is printed in the hard-copy Post, where it’s given a fairly high profile.

This Sunday, we learned something about the health care law from reading Kessler’s featured report. In the piece which appeared in the Post, Kessler tackled a claim we constantly hear on Fox.

Right at the start of Sunday’s report, Kessler presented the statement he was fact-checking. Fox viewers constantly hear some version of this claim:
“The president has exempted over 1,200 groups, including members of Congress, from the health care law.”
—Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), in an interview on CNN, Oct. 15, 2013
In the hard-copy Post, the headline said this:

“Congressman’s claim on exemptions from health-care law lack precision”

Right from the start, we had a bit of a gripe. We don’t think we had ever heard of Steve Scalise before.

As Kessler noted, Scalise is chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, whatever that is. But he’s hardly a household name. According to Nexis, his name has appeared in the New York Times just five times since March 1.

Rep. Scalise did make that statement on CNN. But we’ve seen every Republican and his three crazy uncles making some form of that claim on Fox. Also every pundit!

In short, the claim in question has been widely made, by pols and pundits alike. Ideally, Kessler should have said as much, instead of laying it off on a single no-name congressman.

That said, we have never been real clear on what that ubiquitous statement means. We were especially fuzzy on the frequent claim that Obama, or the Democratic Congress, villainously exempted members of Congress from the health care law.

We had a rough idea of what that meant, but we weren’t real sure. As is the norm in our journalistic culture, we’d never seen anyone try to explain this very common assertion.

We learned a great deal from reading Kessler’s post. What did we learn about the claim that members of Congress were exempted from the health care law? We learned some basics from the following passage, although parts of this are cloudy:
KESSLER (10/20/13): As for Congress being exempted, this is also incorrect.

As a result of an amendment offered by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the Affordable Care Act includes a provision that would require members of Congress (and their personal staffs) to get their insurance on the Obamacare exchanges. The Heritage Foundation has released a very interesting paper that details the legislative history of this provision, and how efforts to adjust it (including by Grassley) slipped away before final passage.

Thus there was an unexpected wrinkle: the exchanges are intended for people who currently do not get employer-provided insurance, whereas lawmakers and their staffs previously had about 70 percent of their insurance premiums underwritten by the federal government through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. For lawmakers and their staffs, the loss of employer contributions would have amounted to an unintended pay cut of between $5,000 to $10,000.

In ordinary times, technical fixes to complex bills are routinely passed, as there are often drafting errors. The Heritage paper makes clear that this problem was never intended. But as a consequence of the Democrats’ decision to pass such sweeping legislation with no Republican votes, it is all but impossible for such legislation to win support in the House. Politically, lawmakers also did not want to solve their particular problem while leaving other technical fixes untouched.
Who knew? According to Kessler, Grassley proposed an amendment to the health care law—and he even got it enacted! His amendment required members of Congress to get their insurance from the exchanges.

Here’s where the fuzz comes is:

According to Kessler, Grassley never intended that members should be required to use the exchanges. Somehow, though, he made the proposal—and somehow it passed! As a result, members would have been so required, even though the exchanges were intended for people who don’t get health care as part of their employment.

We thought Kessler’s account of that process was a bit fuzzy. As he went on, he described the convoluted process by which this unintended provision got “fixed” by an act of the Office of Personnel Management, not by a legislative act of the Congress.

This leads to a Jesuitical debate: Under these circumstances, is it accurate to say that Obama “exempted members of Congress from the health care law?” According to Kessler’s final judgment, “Scalise would have been on stronger ground if he had claimed that Congress got special treatment, rather than suggesting that lawmakers and their staffs were not covered by the health care law.”

Angels were dancing on the top of page A4 by the time that assessment appeared. Did members of Congress really end up “getting special treatment” here? We aren't real sure why Kessler said that. But as a result, he gave three Pinocchios to Scalise.

Fox viewers hear versions of this claim all the time. They constantly hear that Obama, or the Democratic Congress, pulled a fast one—that Obamacare is so god-awful that members of Congress had to be exempted.

Thanks to Kessler’s piece, we got a bit clearer about the background to this claim. But we’ll register two basic gripes:

Again, this claim is being made by everyone to the right of Morning Joe, on an hourly basis. It seems odd to attribute the claim to one little-known congressman.

Also this:

Because this claim is being widely made, it ought to be discussed and clarified in a regular news report. Alas! Through its use of the Fact Checker blog, the Post has created a bit of a ghetto in its Sunday hard-copy edition.

Once a week, the Post presents a special column in which we get to see some fact get checked. But this particular claim is being made every day. It deserves to be treated like everyday news. It shouldn’t be fenced away in a special Sunday preserve.

Voters who watch Fox hear mutterings about this every day. It’s treated as a big major deal, a mark of the slippery ways of Obama and/or Reid.

The claim is never spelled out clearly. We’ll guess that very few Fox viewers actually know what it means.

We learned a lot from Kessler’s post, though we don’t understand the logic of his final judgment. But when that many people hear that much piddle, it ought to be treated as news.

It’s news when voters get misled. Big newspapers should treat it as such. They ought to do so on the front page, where the rest of the major news lives.

What we assume: We assume Kessler means that members of Congress “got special treatment” in the process which went through OPM.

But on the substance, members of Congress ended up getting treated like everyone else. The exchanges aren't meant for people like them. Fox viewers deserve to be told that, on the front page of the Post, with a long list of quotes from the various people who have been spreading confusion.


  1. Wasn't one of the Republican demands to treat Congress "equally" to average Americans by subjecting them the Obamacare. Hey, what do you know, it was already in there. A Victory for the Tea Party after all! By God, Ann Coulter was right. The shutdown was genius.

    Hey, I have health insurance through my employer, a company of less than 50 employees. Does that make me exempt from Obamacare and elite and privileged? Is that fair?

  2. Breaking News!!!
    FOX Lies!!!


  3. Who cares what Grassley intended. Our laws are not determined by the alleged after-the-fact, alleged intentions of a single Senator.

    This law was passed by both houses of Congress and duly signed by the President. It required that Congress get their health care through the Exchanges. The President chose not to obey that part of the law. And, note that the White House's (bogus) excuse for not obeying that law had nothing to do with Grassley's alleged intentions.

    Scalise's statement was 100% correct.

    1. DAinCA,

      As usual, the only thing you know is what you've been told by the people who pick your pockets.

      The Grassley amendment to the ACA required Congresscritters and their staff to get their insurance from the new exchanges. And guess what? That's exactly what's going to happen. The old insurance plans under Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) law will no longer be available. Just as the law requires.

      The President is not disobeying the law.

      The FEBH also provides a benefit for those who fall under its purview -- employer (i.e, the federal government) provided subsidies. Those will continue, but the ACA has nothing to say about that.

    2. There was talk during the shutdown of ending the "subsidies" which they also called "special treatment."

      But that cuts to the argument that health insurance is some gift from a benevolent employer rather than part of compensation package earned by workers in exchange for their labor.

      According to what I've read, the federal government paid 70 percent of the premiums for employees and their families. The "subsidy" is nothing more than a continuation of that policy.

    3. According to the ACA, if you already have good insurance that you are happy with, then you don't have to do anything, you can keep your existing insurance. The ACA does not force you to give up your current insurance if you are satisfied with it. Shouldn't that rule apply to congresscritters who already have health insurance? The ACA is really designed for the millions of Americans who are uninsured or under insured.

  4. Employers can provide insurance and take tax credit but employers cannot subsidize health insurance purchased in the federal marketplace they can only increase wages to cover the purchase by employees is that so hard to see the difference. If an employer increased the wages to cover employee may have increased taxes and the employer would definitely have increase. Wave the magic wand and federal employees now can qualify for subsides in and out of the marketplace not that any employee would ever do that.

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