Sunday, December 21st, 2014
Pants on Fire!
Chain email
Members of Congress "specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed, such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment" ... (and) from the healthcare reform."

Chain email on Sunday, January 6th, 2013 in a chain email message

Did members of Congress exempt themselves from complying with the health care reform laws?

A new poll released this month by the firm Public Policy Polling showed Congress to be less popular than colonoscopies, root canals or cockroaches.

To get a lower favorability rating than Congress, the Washington newspaper The Hill reported, they had to be compared to lobbyists, playground bullies, telemarketers and the Kardashians.

Maybe that explains why people keep forwarding a viral email making damaging claims about Congress.

Our friends at Snopes.com, the urban legend checker, say the email has been circulating in various forms since at least 2000. But it’s still circulating. A reader who recently received a version of the email forwarded it to PolitiFact Ohio asking about its accuracy.

It asserts that relatives of members of Congress and Congressional staffers "are exempt from having to pay back student loans" -- a ridiculously false claim that Snopes.com and our colleagues at FactCheck.org debunked and that we rated Pants on Fire.

We also rated as Pants on Fire its claim that members of Congress can "retire with the same pay after only one term."

But readers also asked about another claim in the email: that members of Congress "specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed, such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment, while ordinary citizens must live under those laws. The latest is to exempt themselves from the healthcare reform, in all of its forms."

PolitiFact first examined the claim that members of Congress are exempt from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, when the legislation was still under consideration in Congress.

We rated it False. That claim was based on the assumption that the health care reform plan would have sent everyone -- except Congress -- into a new "public option" federal insurance plan. It would not have.

In fact, the law as passed did not even include a public option -- and Section 1213 of it requires members of Congress and congressional staff, starting in 2014, to buy health plans created by the health care act or offered through the state exchanges the act establishes.

Political scientist Norman Ornstein, a long-time observer of Congress and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, debunked the claim of congressional exemption in a piece he wrote for the Washington newspaper Roll Call.

"On the assertion that Members of Congress are exempt from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act: also false," he wrote. "Members of Congress are subject under the health care reform law to the same mandate that others are to purchase insurance, and their plans must have the same minimum standards of benefits that other insurance plans will have to meet. Members of Congress currently have not a gold-plated free plan but the same insurance options that most other federal employees have, and they do not have it provided for free. They have a generous subsidy for their premiums, but no more generous (and compared to many businesses or professions less generous) than standard employer-provided subsidies throughout the country."

FactCheck.org examined the broader claim that members of Congress "specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed (such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment)," and found it "15 years out of date" in 2010.

The reason: Passage of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995. It specifically made sure a variety of laws dealing with civil rights, labor and workplace safety regulations applied to the legislative branch of government. The independent Office of Compliance was set up to enforce the laws in Congress.

The act specifically prohibits harassment based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age and disability.

Ornstein, who has been sharply critical of Congress (and only last month co-authored a piece for Foreign Policy magazine titled "Yes, Congress Is That Bad") said it is "not surprising that, in tough times, Americans would be inclined to believe the absolute worst about their elected officials.

"But at least," he added, "let the criticism be fair and based on facts instead of persistent urban legends."

PolitiFact Ohio would agree.

At best, the chain email's statement about Congressional exemptions is ridiculously out of date. At worst, it is cynically inaccurate.

On the Truth-O-Meter, it rates Pants on Fire!