With Senate Republicans unable to pass a health care bill, President Trump might be able to shake up the debate and motivate swift congressional action by ordering the end of the Obamacare exemption for lawmakers and their staff members.
As Obamacare was debated in 2009 and 2010, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, proposed an amendment that would require all members of Congress and their staff members to be subject to the new law. Eventually, that amendment got watered down to allow exemptions for committee staff members.
Columnist John Fund says lawmakers and office staffers soon realized they didn’t like how the new law impacted them.
“They quickly discovered as the exchanges were being set up that the exchanges were going to prohibit the payment of subsidies to anyone with an exchange policy who was getting that policy from their employer. In other words, you could have your own policy, but you couldn’t have your employer pay for it,” said Fund.
Before long, lawmakers and their employees were looking for special favors from the president.
“That meant that Congress would lose about 70 percent of its subsidies for health care. They were, of course, traumatized by this. They went behind the scenes to President Obama, who quietly made a call to the Office of Personnel Management. That’s the group that manages all federal employees,” said Fund.
“[The Office of Personnel Management, or OPM,] decided that the exchange would include Congress and its staff, that Congress qualified for a ‘small business exemption,’ which meant that it had fewer than 50 employees. Well, Congress has a thousand employees, so that’s preposterous. This was clearly an illegal interpretation of the law,” said Fund.
Of course, Congress has no interest in addressing that misinterpretation of the law.
“It has persisted because Congress doesn’t want to go and vote on reimposing the same restrictions that all Americans labor under with Obamacare on itself. In other words, it doesn’t want to do it in public. It wants to do it more sneakily behind the scenes,” said Fund.
Fund says if Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, really wanted to take a principled stand on Obamacare, he would have focused on this issue instead of his vote to kill the so-called skinny repeal last week.
“Rather than John McCain voting against Obamacare reform and shutting the whole process down, if John McCain had really been courageous what he would have done is offered an amendment on the Senate floor, saying whatever happens, Congress should not be exempt from Obamacare. He didn’t do that,” said Fund.
After Obama directed the OPM to exempt Congress and the staffers, then-Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, repeatedly pushed legislation to reinstate the requirement for the rules of Obamacare to apply to everyone on Capitol Hill.
Not only did neither party act on his efforts, but some lawmakers were so irate that they asked staffers to draft legislation to remove the exemption for any lawmakers who supported Vitter’s bill, as well as the staffers for those members.
That idea went nowhere but Fund says it typifies the attitude of too many officials in Washington.
“What’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. They believe they’re above the law. They don’t come out and say that because it sounds awful in a democracy. But the bottom line in Washington is you watch what people do, not what they say,” said Fund.
The good news, says Fund, is that President Trump can reverse this policy just as easily as President Obama put it in place.
“It wasn’t even an executive order. Believe it or not, it was just a phone call to the Office of Personnel Management saying, ‘You work for me. You issue this,’” said Fund. “Donald Trump could literally pick up the phone tomorrow and declare Congress is now covered by Obamacare fully and completely.”
A poll conducted by Independent Women’s Voice just prior to Obamacare’s implementation in 2013 shows 93.7 percent of American voters wanted Congress to abide by the rules along with every other American.
“The only ones who don’t think it’s unfair are the friends and family of Congress,” quipped Fund.
However, Fund says there is one condition under which Trump should consider allowing the exemption to continue.
“I think the best way to get Congress to, shall we say, see the light is to reform Obamacare for everyone. Let Congress keep its exemption if other Americans can do the same thing,” said Fund.
But given the entrenched polarization in Congress, would threatening to remove the exemption really move the needle?
“If Donald Trump took this issue to the people and said, ‘I am sending a bill to Congress that will transform health care and reform Obamacare, and included in it is the provision that Congress should be covered by Obamacare and I demand a vote on it,’ Congress is going to have to do something,” said Fund.
Fund says Trump would be wise to give Congress fair warning rather than to rescind the exemption in a surprise, but he believes the president needs to hang this threat over lawmakers’ heads.
“Before Trump did it publicly, he should meet privately with members of Congress and say, ‘Look, I’m putting you on notice. Fair warning. I might do this. Let’s work out something now and let’s get something to the floor that we can vote on, so I don’t have to do this,’” said Fund.