By MARSHA MERCER
Two things people detest about Washington: when members of Congress play politics and when they play favorites, especially favoring themselves.
Well, pull up a chair and get your mad on. Both sides of the aisle are guilty in the flap over the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges.
Exchanges are the online marketplaces where people will compare and buy insurance starting in January. One of the selling points for the public is that members of Congress will participate. This is less because Congress wanted to do the right thing than because Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, added a requirement that Congress and staff enter the exchanges.
Members of Congress are notorious for making rules for the rest of us while exempting themselves, and Grassley has the novel notion that Congress ought not do that. He was also gigging Democrats and didn’t expect his amendment to survive. But Democrats surprised him and agreed to it.
With the online exchanges scheduled to open for enrollment in October, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reportedly were secretly negotiating a way to exempt lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers. When the news broke, the twitterverse lit up with outrage.
The congressional leaders denied they wanted to exempt themselves. They wanted only to fix it so the federal government could continue contributing its employer share to workers’ insurance premiums, they said. Maybe so, but the damage was done.
Now comes Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He upped the ante by proposing that all federal employees – from the president to groundskeepers – buy their health insurance on exchanges. He would exempt active-duty military and postal workers.
“If the Obamacare exchanges are good enough for the hard-working Americans and small businesses the law claims to help, then they should be good enough for the president, vice president, Congress and federal employees,” a Camp spokeswoman said.
President Barack Obama has said he will buy insurance through an exchange, although he has medical staff at his elbow in the White House.
Camp’s bill brought speedy condemnation from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the unions that represent federal workers.
“There is no need to kick over 2 million federal employees off their insurance plans in order to satisfy the cynical political urges of House Republicans, who have voted to repeal this law over 30 times,” a spokesman for Pelosi said.
Camp’s proposal is an over-correction, and federal workers are already political footballs under sequestration’s automatic spending cuts and furloughs. But his proposal does raise an interesting point. Should the government continue to subsidize federal employees’ health care the way private employers do?
If so, a mechanism for employer subsidies needs to be built into the exchanges. As currently envisioned, the exchanges are for people whose employers don’t offer insurance and for people who can’t afford the coverage that is offered.
The kerfuffle over congressional participation in exchanges came as most Americans seem to be hazy, at best, about the law. Four in 10 American adults don’t even know that the Affordable Care Act is still the law of the land, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll reported.
Obama says the law is working fine, even if people don’t know it. He still believes that people will come to understand the benefits in time, although he also concedes there will be “glitches and bumps” along the way. Only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the law, Kaiser says.
People are unlikely to embrace the law as long as Congress appears to disdain it. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., made news last month when he worried aloud that the rollout of the exchanges could be “a huge train wreck.” He’s retiring but other Democrats are worried that the exchanges will hurt them in the 2014 elections.
It’s evidently too much to ask Congress to show leadership on an issue that affects every American.
For now, Democrats and Republicans have returned to their corners. But we’re likely to see more mischief making on the health law and more reasons to detest Washington.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.