Just Another Day in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

by Patrick Brennan

Senate Democrats annoyed by Republican efforts to prevent federal contributions to congressional employees’ health-care plans under Obamacare are getting creative: According to draft legislation obtained by Politico, Democrats want an amendment to make sure congressmen who the ethics committee says might have solicited prostitutes at some point can’t get a federal contribution to their health-care premiums – a codicil aimed squarely at Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who was linked to a 2007 D.C. prostitution scandal and has been an especially enthusiastic proponent of a bill to make Congress and its employees pay full-freight for their health care.

Several Democratic senators apparently asked that this piece of legislation be drafted, though it’s not clear whether they’ll actually go forward with it. The specifics of the proposal, which apparently could take one of three forms, actually sound even more ridiculous:

Under one scenario, no federal contribution may be given to a lawmaker or an aide if a congressional ethics committee has “probable cause to determine” that the individual has “engaged in the solicitation of prostitution.”

Another option includes broader language that would deny contributions to those found to have engaged in “improper conduct reflecting discreditably on the congressional office involved.”

And a third proposal would deny coverage to lawmakers who vote for the Vitter plan, even if it doesn’t become law.

Vitter’s proposal would require that all congressmen and their staffers, and President Obama, Vice President Biden, and White House staff, to get their insurance from the new exchanges. The law already bars the former group from their federal-employee health-care plan and puts them on the exchanges, and the latter group seems like they kind of deserve it too — but plans like Vitter’s will mean that all of them will have to pay the whole cost of their premiums on the exchanges, which will probably be triple or quadruple the premiums they now personally pay. (Which amount to 25 percent of their plans’ total costs; their employer — Congress/the American taxpayer — picks up the rest.)

The announcement by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM, the federal government’s HR office, basically) on August 1 wasn’t really, as a lot of opponents like to call it, a congressional ”exemption” from Obamacare that ordinary Americans didn’t get. The law intentionally treated congressmen and their staff differently, requiring them to enroll in Obamacare’s exchanges and making them ineligible for federal-employee plans. The OPM ruling said that federal government would continue paying the same amount toward congressional employees’ premiums as they did before, just on the exchanges rather than the federal health plan. This isn’t quite an “exemption,” but it also isn’t legal, as Cato’s Michael Cannon has explained: The OPM and the president have no authority to spend this money on Obamacare premiums for Congress.

Doing this the legal way now would have been rather difficult: Congress would have to pass a bill authorizing OPM to make contributions to its premiums on the exchanges, or vote itself and its staffers a large raise in their cash compensation (which couldn’t apply to congressmen themselves till 2015, per the Twenty-Seventh Amendment). Obamacare, via reduced hours or dropped coverage, definitely will result in compensation cuts for plenty of Americans, but there’s no particularly good reason why the law should force huge cuts on everyone who works for the U.S. Congress, and that wasn’t Congress’s intent when they put this rule in the bill. The idea was to force Congress to have to buy insurance on the exchanges (where total rates will be higher, especially for the young, etc.), but not to force them to pay the full cost of their health care, which they wouldn’t do at almost any comparable job, even under Obamacare. But that’s what the law does – or would have done, absent the OPM’s dubious fix. 

There was a legitimate concern that big compensation cuts could have caused a “brain drain” of talented, hard-working congressional staffers, but Senator Vitter doesn’t seem to be too worried about it, saying that given Congress and its staff did write Obamacare, “We can afford some of that drain.”

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