BYRON YORK: Special exemption for Congress?
“I’m going to get a vote,” says Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. “I can’t tell you how, or when, but I’m going to get a vote.”
Vitter is determined to force his fellow senators to do something many don’t want to do: Vote on whether the law, specifically Obamacare, applies to members of Congress and their staff.
Back in 2009, when Democrats were writing the massive new national health care scheme, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley offered an amendment. Obamacare created exchanges through which millions of Americans would purchase “affordable” health coverage. Grassley’s amendment simply required lawmakers, staff and some in the executive branch to get their insurance through the exchanges, too.
To every Republican’s amazement, Democrats accepted the amendment. It’s never been fully clear why; the best theory is they intended to take the provision out in conference committee, but couldn’t do so because they lost their filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. In any event, Obamacare — the law of the land, as supporters like to say — now requires Congress to buy its health care coverage through the exchanges.
That caused Democratic panic as the formal arrival of Obamacare neared. Right now, all lawmakers and staff are entitled to enjoy generously subsidized coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan. Why give up that subsidy and go on the exchanges like any average American?
But that’s the law. It could be amended, but Democrats, who voted unanimously for Obamacare, couldn’t very well expect much help from Republicans, who voted unanimously against it. So over the summer Democrats asked President Obama to simply create an Obamacare exception for Capitol Hill.
Not long after — presto! — the Office of Personnel Management unveiled a proposed rule to allow members of Congress, their staff and some executive branch employees to continue receiving their generous federal subsidy even as they purchase coverage on the exchanges. No ordinary American would be allowed such an advantage.
Vitter watched the maneuvering that led to the OPM decision. He began work on what became the Vitter Amendment, which he likes to call “No Washington Exemption from Obamacare,” that would reverse the OPM ruling.
It specifies that members of Congress, staff, the president, vice president and all the administration’s political appointees buy health coverage through Obamacare exchanges. If any of them earn incomes low enough to qualify for regular Obamacare subsidies, they will receive them — just like any other American. But those with higher incomes will have to pay for their coverage on the exchanges — just like everybody else.
Vitter hasn’t exactly thrilled his colleagues. “There has been a lot of pushback behind the scenes, including from many Republicans,” he says. Political types have complained that the requirement will cause “brain drain” on the Hill as staffers escape the burden of paying for their own coverage. “My response is, first of all, it’s the law,” says Vitter. “Look, this is a disruption. It’s exactly what’s happening across America, to people who are going to the exchanges against their will. To me, that’s the point.”
Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, is one colleague delighted by Vitter’s move. The idea of equal Obamacare treatment for Washington is enormously popular around the country, Johnson points out, which means even lawmakers who don’t like it will be afraid to oppose it.
“I think most members don’t want to vote to reject the OPM ruling,” Johnson says. “But I think most members would vote to do that, if they were forced to, because it is so politically unpopular to have special treatment for members of Congress and their staff.”
For that reason, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, aided by some Republicans, has done everything he can to make sure there will be no vote. When Vitter tried to attach his amendment to an energy bill, Reid at first resisted and finally pulled the legislation rather than allow a vote. Vitter also tried to add the amendment to continuing resolutions to fund the government. The response: No way, no how. Democrats have also circulated drafts of legislation to actually punish Vitter for his temerity.
But things may be changing. Recently Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came out strongly for the amendment, telling radio host Bill Bennett that Congress “should not get any carve-outs from Obamacare.” And the Vitter Amendment could play a role in the resolution of the current funding battle on Capitol Hill.
Or it might not. But in the long run, Vitter is likely to succeed. If there’s anything that drives voters crazy, it is Congress exempting itself from the miseries it imposes on the American public. Someday, as Obamacare becomes a difficult reality in everyday life, Vitter will get his vote.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: In the time since this column was written, Republicans in the House passed a provision that would have ended employer-provided health insurance for members of Congress, their aides, presidential appointees and the president and vice president as a condition for averting a government shutdown, according to The Associated Press. The Democratic- controlled Senate rejected the measure, AP reported.