POLITICS AUGUST 20, 2013
It's time to pop the champagne and blow the kazoos: the war on Obamacare has officially reached its point of reductio ad absurdum. Two of the opposition's favored fevered conspiracy theories about the law have clashed, like two asteroids headed for the planet that smash into each other before they can do any damage below.
First, there was the opposition's demand that members of Congress and their staff be subjected to Obamacare—that they be forced to give up their coverage in the health plans for federal employees and join the new insurance exchanges on the theory that "if Congress was going to impose Obamacare upon the country, it should have to experience what it is imposing firsthand." This never really made sense from the outset since the exchanges, at least for the foreseeable future, are meant only for people without employer coverage and for small businesses buying coverage for their workers. That is, most of "the country" is not going to have anything to do with the exchanges—they are just going to keep being covered by their employers.
Forcing the incongruous requirement that Hill employees enter the exchanges resulted, inevitably, in a snafu: the exchanges are not designed for employers and employees to share the cost of plans that are selected by workers, since the exchanges are meant for people buying coverage on their own. Congress, like most large employers, covers the lion's share of their workers' premiums, but wasn't going to be able to do so as the law was written, leaving Hill workers with thousands more dollars a year in premium costs than they now pay. To fix this problem—which was never intended even by the members of Congress who wanted Hill staff to share in the burdens of Obamacare—the administration and Congress agreed on a tweak that would maintain the requirement for congressional staff to enter the exchanges, while allowing for the federal government to pick up its share of the costs. Conservatives decried this as an "exemption" from Obamacare, which was flatly untrue: in fact, the Hill is being included in Obamacare to an extent beyond what the law was built to allow for. For a pithy dismissal of the "exemption" trope, see the recent letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal by the gentleman from Verona.
Meanwhile, opponents of the law have since the early days of its drafting been busy fanning flames on another front as well: charging that the law would allow for federal funding of abortions, which has been barred for years. This line almost managed to stop the legislation in its tracks before supporters settled on a highly unwieldy compromise—plans on the exchanges can cover abortions (as many insurance plans now do) but the abortion coverage must be offered in a supplemental plan, purchased separately from the main coverage, and without the help of the federal subsidies many people will receive to help them buy the plans. This is such a messy arrangement that abortion rights supporters fear that precious few plans on the exchanges will even bother to include abortion coverage. And the law also allows states to pass laws banning abortion coverage, period, from plans in their exchanges, as many states have already done.
Do you see where this is headed? The law forces Congress and its staffers into the exchanges...the law, in theory, allows for plans with abortion coverage to be sold on the exchanges...and, voila, the crash in the skies above. Take it away, Associated Press:
The politics of the abortion debate are always tricky for lawmakers. They may soon get personal. An attempt to fix a problem with the national health care law has created a situation in which members of Congress and their staffers could gain access to abortion coverage. That's a benefit currently denied to them and to all federal employees who get health insurance through the government's plan...
Abortion opponents say the regulation would circumvent a longstanding law that bars the use of taxpayer funds for "administrative expenses in connection with any health plan under the federal employees health benefits program which provides any benefits or coverage for abortions." Unlike many private corporate plans, federal employee plans only cover abortions in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
"Under this scheme, (the government) will be paying the administrative costs," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., author of the abortion funding ban for federal employee plans. "It's a radical deviation and departure from current federal law, and it's not for all federal employees, but for a subset: Congress. Us." Smith is calling on the Obama administration to specify that lawmakers and staffers must choose a plan that does not cover abortions. The funding ban, in place since the 1980s, is known as the Smith amendment.
This framing is actually off the mark. It's not "an attempt to fix a problem" with the law that has created this situation. It was the original demand by Republicans (Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley led the way) that members of Congress and their staff be forced into the exchanges. The administration is downplaying the whole matter, noting that, technically, Hill members and staffers who buy a plan on the exchanges that comes with the abortion coverage will be paying for that part of the coverage out of their own pocket. But yes, in theory, a member of Congress and his or her staff may now be able to have abortion coverage, which was not the case previously. The horror! After all, we know that some members of Congress have a messy track record with abortions—like, say, demanding that their mistresses get one.
So, tiger, how does that tail of yours taste?
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.