House insists on the dumbest Obamacare reform possible

With negotiations on ending the government shutdown and debt limit impasse appearing to make progress in the Senate, there is now some reason to hope that the potential cataclysm brought on by the House tea party caucus' anti-Obamacare fever will be avoided. The Senate compromise, while far from perfect, would at least give the nation some breathing room so that Republican and Democratic leaders can (again) seek some broader agreement on spending, taxes and the deficit.

But there is still, of course, the chance for House Republicans to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Desperate to extract some meaning from the damage they have caused to the economy and to America's standing in the world by shutting down the government and threatening to default on the national debt, House leaders appear intent on forcing at least some changes to President Barack Obama's signature health care reform law, and they are insisting on the dumbest, most meaningless one possible: denying subsidized health insurance to themselves, the White House and possibly their own staffs.

In America's system of employer subsidized health insurance — which Obamacare leaves largely intact — businesses have been offering coverage for their employees for decades. Initially, it was a way for businesses to get around World War II-era wage caps, but over the years, it has become a standard part of compensation for American workers in both the private and public sectors. Now, though, House Republicans want to treat members of Congress, the president and his top aides differently from all other workers in America by, effectively, forbidding their employers from offering that benefit.

That's not how they phrase it, of course. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor calls it the GOP's "position on fairness" that politicians should get "no special treatment under the law." But finding a way for that to make sense requires some twisted logic about what "special treatment" entails.

Politicians were singled out for special treatment from the beginning of the Affordable Care Act when Republicans insisted that members of Congress and their staffs should be required to buy health insurance through the new exchanges created by the law rather than continuing to be eligible for one of the standard policies offered by the federal government to some 8 million current and former workers and their dependents. Democrats called their bluff. Indeed, there's no reason to be upset about being sent to the insurance exchanges, as they offer far more choices in most states in terms of the levels of coverage and prices than virtually any private or public employer does.

The original amendment, offered by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, made clear that those workers would continue to receive employer subsidies for their insurance. But the final version that made it into the law was unclear on that point (along with a variety of others). In August, at the behest of members of Congress from both parties who feared a brain-drain among their staffs if they were, effectively, faced with thousands of dollars in cuts to their compensation, the Obama administration issued a ruling making clear that the employer contributions would continue.

Now Republicans are trying to make political hay out of that, claiming that President Obama gave Congress a special exemption from the Affordable Care Act, when what he actually did was to make the system work for members of Congress and their staffs more like the way it works for everybody else.

House Republicans have now expanded the concept from focusing the special provision just on themselves to also include the president, vice president and cabinet secretaries. There's also some talk of adding the Congressional aides back into the mix. They probably think it sounds like great politics to take a stand on this issue, but all it really does is to expose just how hollow this exercise has been from the start. Their ambitions have now been downgraded from dismantling a law that will make health insurance more available, affordable and fair to seeking a meaningless gesture that will have no impact whatsoever on hundreds of millions of Americans, won't reduce the budget deficit and could actually make Congress operate even less effectively, if that's possible. It's all politics, no policy.

We understand the House leadership's desire to find some face-saving way to climb out of the hole they've dug for themselves, but they must believe the American public is pretty stupid if they think this is it.

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