Why Congress Might Gut Its Own Health Care Coverage

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If congressional Republicans can’t delay or defund Obamacare, they hope to at least walk away from the latest budget fight on Capitol Hill with a rhetorical, if disingenuous, weapon to use in the future.

A proposal put forth by Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana would eliminate federal contributions to health plans now covering members of Congress and their staffs. The contributions are similar to those employees of large corporations receive toward monthly insurance premiums, but by twisting congressional measures taken in the course of years of jockeying over the new Affordable Care Act, Republicans are hoping they can convince voters that the contributions are something else entirely.

Touted by Vitter as an end to a “special exception” for “Washington insiders,” Vitter’s “No Washington Exemption from Obamacare” amendment will reportedly be attached by House Republicans later today to a continuing resolution that would keep the federal government running. It will likely die in the Democratic Senate, which has signaled it will only pass a continuing resolution that’s free of add ons.

In crafting his amendment, Vitter reached back into some of the tortured political history that preceded passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. In 2009, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley offered an amendment to the health care law that transferred members of Congress and Hill staffers from the Federal Employee Health Benefit plan, an insurance marketplaces where federal employees shop for coverage, to new state-based Obamacare exchanges. To ensure that those working on Capitol Hill would be able to keep the employer subsidy the federal government contributes to their health insurance premiums, the Obama Administration said that members of Congress and their aides would be able to apply federal contributions to plans purchased through Obamacare exchanges.

Vitter calls this an “exception” to Obamacare, which is technically true. Other Americans who get health insurance through their jobs can’t take their employer insurance contributions and apply them directly to new individual plans purchased through the exchanges. But these Americans aren’t being forced to purchase health insurance through Obamacare exchanges, which makes all the difference. The exchanges were designed not for those with employer-based health coverage, but rather for those who are uninsured.

Millions of uninsured Americans who shop in Obamacare exchanges will be able to access generous federal subsidies to cover some or all of their insurance costs. But members of Congress and their aides, in most cases, earn too much to qualify for subsidies, meaning, under the Vitter amendment, they would have to cover the full cost of health insurance plans, unlike most uninsured Americans and nearly every other person in America who works for a large organization.

If the Vitter amendment is attached to a congressional bill to keep the government running and rejected by the Senate, Republicans believe they will be able to claim that they wanted to keep the government open, but Democrats were willing to shut it down to protect their own perks. That is tortured reading of what is really going on. To put it another way, Democrats will have declined to punish themselves in ways that no other employees of large organizations will be punished under the new law.