If President Trump wants to fulfill his repeated promise to end ObamaCare, his best course of action is a radical change in tactics that would hit members of Congress where it hurts – in their wallets. The 55-45 vote Wednesday by the Senate rejecting a straight repeal of ObamaCare makes it clear that the president needs to try something new.
With a mere stroke of his pen, President Trump could end the exemption that President Obama gave members of Congress and their staffs that makes them the only participants in the ObamaCare exchanges to receive generous subsidies from their employer (the American people) to pay for their health insurance. Nothing would better focus Congress’ attention on changing ObamaCare than being trapped in it just like other Americans.
When Vice President Pence was asked about the special exemption for Congress by Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Wednesday, he lamented that it was “pretty typical” for there to be “one set of rules for the American people and another for the political class here in our nation’s capital.” But he wouldn’t be pinned down over whether the Trump administration would act: “It would be (President Trump’s) decision to rescind that special treatment for members of Congress and their staffs,” he told Carlson
Well, it’s about time. Ending the special perk funded by taxpayers may represent the only leverage President Trump has to fulfill his promise to repeal ObamaCare.
Back in 2009, when ObamaCare was being debated, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was able to insert a provision requiring all members of Congress and their staffs to get insurance through the ObamaCare health exchanges.
“The more that Congress experiences the laws it passes, the better,” said Grassley.
Although his amendment was watered down to exclude committee staff, it still applies to members of Congress and their personal staffs. Most employment lawyers interpreted that to mean that the taxpayer-funded federal health insurance subsidies dispensed to members of Congress and their personal staffs – which now range from $6,000 to $12,000 a year and cover about 70 percent of the cost of insurance premiums – would have to end.
Democratic and Republican staffers alike were furious, and along with members of Congress applied behind-the-scenes pressure on the White House. During a congressional recess in August 2013, President Obama personally ordered the Office of Personnel Management, which supervises federal employment issues, to interpret the law so as to retain the generous congressional benefits. This overturned the intent of the provision Grassley added to the law.
OPM had previously balked at issuing such a ruling. Even without OPM, Congress could have voted to restore the subsidies or ordered a pay raise to compensate for the loss of benefits, but that would have been a messy public process, which everyone wanted to avoid.
Former Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana says the OPM ruling removed “the sting of ObamaCare” from Congress. He led a fight until his retirement from the Senate this year to wipe out any special treatment for Congress.
The Congressional Leadership Empire decided to strike back at Vitter. Politico reported in 2013 that several Democratic senators asked staff to draft legislation that would deny federal health subsidies to anyone who voted for the Vitter bill, even if it didn’t become law. Naturally, the bill went nowhere.
Vitter believed his approach would be the best way to get the attention of Congress. “Many Americans are seeing their health coverage dropped by employers, and they are then forced into the exchanges,” he told me in 2013. “If Congress is forced into them on the same terms, it will be more likely to fix ObamaCare’s problems for others.”
Polls taken by Independent Women’s Voice, a free market group, find that 94 percent of voters think Congress shouldn’t be exempted from the insurance provisions of ObamaCare. Most voters blame both parties equally for the exemption, which means Republicans will also be hurt politically if it stands.
“The president should announce that he is instructing OPM to end the exemption and subsidies for Congress,” IWV president Heather Higgins wrote in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.
”If the president does this, he’d have huge negotiating leverage. He would align the interests of the ruling class with those of his voters, forcing Congress to act. He might even get some Democratic votes.”