President Obama is illegally modifying his health care law to protect Congress from its effects, and he’s willing keep government shut down to do it.
The fight over forcing congressmen and their staffs into Obamacare’s insurance exchanges has been clouded by misleading Republican rhetoric and slippery Democratic legal arguments, but it boils down to this: Obamacare harms many groups of people, but the politically connected get to escape the law’s effects.
Here’s the background:
In 2009, liberal Democrats wanted a “public option” in which government-supplied insurance would compete with private insurance. In the Senate health committee, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said if Democrats insisted on creating an insurer run by the government, then congressmen and their staffs shouldn't have the option to buy superior private insurance.
The White House and Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, killed the public option in summer of 2009 as they worked with the drug lobby to craft the bill. As the Finance Committee completed its version of Obamacare in the fall, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa repurposed Coburn’s amendment, forcing all congressional staff into the exchanges – the government-run marketplaces where individuals can buy health insurance from private companies.
Democrats unanimously embraced Grassley’s amendment. As liberal blogger Matt Yglesias put it this week, “Democrats genuinely think that health insurance exchanges are a good idea and were happy to sign on.”
But Democrats didn’t actually like this provision, it turns out. Although Coburn and Grassley came up with the idea, it was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who put it into writing. Reid’s legislative language (and thus the text of the Obamacare bill) doesn’t allow Congress to contribute to the premiums of congressmen or staffers.
This would have amounted to a very large pay cut. Staffers with families would have seen their payroll deduction for insurance increase by as much as $1,000 a month by some estimates.
Reid and Boehner wanted to avoid this benefits cut. The two leaders “drafted and reviewed a possible legislative fix, as well as continued to push for an administrative one from the Office of Personnel Management,” according to Politico. Top Boehner staff, Politico reported, met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to plead for a fix - and they got it.
The Office of Personnel Management in August reversed an earlier ruling and declared that congress could subsidize the premiums of members and staff. The legal justification was strained, and involved ignoring or twisting Congress’s own definitions of phrases like “health benefits plan.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., responded by introducing a measure to invalidate the latest OPM ruling, forcing the government to stick to the actual text of the Affordable Care Act – thus barring an employer contribution to Congress’s premiums.
Republicans, though, have muddled the issue with misleading rhetoric. The GOP line is that OPM and Vitters’ opponents are trying to “exempt Congress from Obamacare.” This is nonsensical. Obamacare specially targeted Congressional staff with a punitive rule, and so efforts to soften that unique punishment can’t honestly be called “exemptions.”
It's probably unfair to punish Hill staff by barring an employer contribution—no other employer is barred from contributing to its employees’ premiums. But that doesn’t mean OPM has the right to unilaterally change the law.
And in one sense, Vitter is battling against special treatment for Congress — not special access to health care, but special access to power for the redress of grievances: Congress isn't the only group being hurt by Obamacare, but Congress gets special access to get its problems fixed.
If you just got your hours trimmed because of the employer mandate, Harry Reid isn’t working behind closed doors for you. If you used your Health Savings Account to buy over-the-counter medicine for your children until Obamacare banned this, you probably didn’t get a secret meeting with Obama’s chief of staff on the matter. If Obamacare just outlawed your low-premium catastrophic health care plan, OPM isn’t going to bend the rules for you.
And If you’re a nun with the Little Sisters of the Poor, now forced to buy contraception insurance, the President doesn’t care what you think.
But if you’re a congressmen or congressional staff, Obama wants to make sure you don’t have any complaints about the law – so he’ll just rewrite the law to help you.
This is the way Washington works: When government increases in power, the well-connected do just fine.
If Democrats reject spending bills because Vitter's amendment is in it, they are keeping government shut down in order to preserve this corrupt system of political privilege.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.