Prostitution. Bribery. Blackmail. Thuggery. Hypocrisy.
Those were just some of the incendiary words thrown around the U.S. Senate last week, and that doesn’t count what people said in private.
The Senate may still have a reputation as a genteel club, but lawmakers seemed to abandon rules of decorum completely last week in arguments about whether Congress should be treated like the rest of the country when it comes to Obamacare.
Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, has demanded a floor vote on his bill to end an exemption that members of Congress and their staffs are slated to get that will make them the only participants in the new Obamacare exchanges to receive generous subsidies from their employer to pay for their health insurance. Angry Senate Democrats have drafted legislation that dredges up a 2007 prostitution scandal involving Vitter. The confrontation is a perfect illustration of just how wide the gulf in attitudes is between the Beltway and the rest of the country — and how viciously Capitol Hill denizens will fight for their privileges.
In 1995, the newly elected Republican Congress passed a Congressional Accountability Act to fulfill a promise made the previous year in the Contract with America. For the first time, the Act applied to Congress the same civil-rights employment and labor laws that lawmakers had required everyday citizens to abide by. With some lapses, it’s worked well to defuse public outrage about “one law for thee, one law for me” congressional behavior.
In 2009, Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) decided that the principle deserved to be embedded in Obamacare, and he 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 before final passage 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 those on Congress’s payroll — which now range from $5,000 to $11,000 a year — would have to end.
Democratic and Republican staffers alike were furious, warning that Congress faced a “brain drain” if the provision stuck. Under behind-the-scenes pressure from members of Congress in both parties, President Obama used the quiet of the August recess to personally order the Office of Personnel Management, which supervises federal employment issues, to interpret the law so as to retain the generous congressional benefits.
OPM had previously balked at issuing such a ruling. Even without OPM, Congress could have voted to restore the subsidies or ordered a salary raise to compensate for the loss of benefits, but that would have been a messy, public process, which everyone wanted to avoid.
Senator Vitter says the OPM ruling has removed “the sting of Obamacare” from Congress. “Many Americans will see their health coverage dropped by employers, and they will be forced into the exchanges,” he told me last week. “If Congress is forced into them on the same terms, it will be more likely to fix Obamacare’s problems for others.” The bill he and his co-author, Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, have drafted would make everyone working on Capitol Hill buy insurance through the exchanges — with no subsidies. White House officials and political appointees in the executive branch would also be required to obtain health insurance through the exchanges.
The Congressional Leadership Empire decided to strike back at Vitter. Politico reported that several Democratic senators have asked staff to draft legislation that would deny federal health subsidies to anyone who votes for the Vitter plan, even if Vitter’s plan doesn’t become law. An even more spiteful draft bill would bar subsidies to any lawmaker or aide found by a congressional ethics committee to have “engaged in the solicitation of prostitution.” In 2007, Vitter’s phone number was found in the records of the “D.C. Madam,” the owner of a high-end prostitution ring. Back then, Vitter held a news conference with his wife standing next to him and apologized for a “serious sin” that he refused to discuss further. He was reelected with 57 percent of the vote in 2010.
Vitter isn’t taking the attempts to strong-arm him quietly. “Harry Reid is acting like an old-time Vegas mafia thug, and a desperate one at that,” he said in a statement to Politico. He also wrote a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee demanding an investigation of Reid and Democratic senator Barbara Boxer of California. “Threatening to take away their colleagues’ health care coverage subsidy if they do not vote a certain way, at worst constitutes bribery and a quid pro quo arrangement, and at best amounts to improper conduct,” he wrote. Senator Reid’s office responded by calling Vitter’s charges “absurd and baseless.”
What Vitter’s opponents fear most is that this fight will penetrate the public’s consciousness. A new poll taken for Independent Women’s Voice, a conservative group, found that 92 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. “This is an issue with almost unprecedented intensity,” IWV president Heather Higgins told me. “Republicans have the choice of leading the Vitter parade for repeal or getting run over by it. To duck it will be viewed by their constituents as political malpractice.”
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.