Politics & Policy

Graham Joins Vitter in Fight over Hill’s Carve-Out

Ending special Obamacare treatment for Congress and its staff is popular with voters.

It’s a contest over which senator is the most unpopular with his colleagues. Surprisingly, it’s probably not Ted Cruz. The most likely winner is David Vitter of Louisiana, who is mounting a campaign to end government subsidies for congressional health coverage. Polls show that 92 percent of voters dislike the idea of a special Obamacare privilege for anyone on Capitol Hill.

Yesterday, Vitter won an influential new recruit: GOP senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham told NRO’s Bob Costa that he will “object” to any pending fiscal deal unless the Senate at the same time votes on Vitter’s proposal.

“We’re down to stopping bad things, and the only bad thing at this point that we can really push on is the [Office of Personnel Management] rule,” he told Costa, referring to the rule that allows subsidies for Congress and its staff. “At this point, I’m not sure if we’re going to get it, so I’m going to object on any deal until I get that up-or-down vote. That’s only fair, and I believe the American people will be with me.”

Graham knows Vitter’s amendment may be the best leverage the Republicans have in any budget-deal negotiations. Democrats have personally and passionately appealed to Graham not to throw up a poison pill such as the Vitter amendment. But Graham says the Senate Democrats and President Obama “have moved the goal posts on a reasonable deal.”

Throwing the Vitter proposal into the mix is hugely unpopular with Capitol Hill veterans of both parties. Harry Reid, the majority leader, has slammed Vitter as “an anarchist” and “mean-spirited.”

Vitter responds that the original 2010 Obamacare law barred members of Congress and their personal staffs from continuing to get employer subsidies — worth $5,000 for individual policies and $11,000 or more for family coverage — because they would be buying coverage from the health-care exchanges, where employer subsidies are banned.

When congressional leaders realized what they had done, they chose not to fix it through legislation, because that would have been highly visible fodder for negative campaign ads. Instead, they asked President Obama to direct the Office of Personnel Management to rule that members of Congress and their staffs could continue to get government subsidies even as they bought coverage in the exchanges. Obama did just that in the middle of the August congressional recess, when few were paying attention. Note that in this case the “employer” is the government, so if subsidies are allowed, they would be paid by taxpayers

In another legally dubious move, OPM declared Congress to be the equivalent of a business with fewer than 50 employees, in order to evade parts of Obamacare. That’s another special treatment — no other bigger business gets to claim it is merely lots of little businesses.

Senator Vitter is suspicious of just how the OPM rulings came about. To add to his bad-boy reputation, last week he also wrote the Obama administration to ask for all the e-mails and letters it received from Capitol Hill that sought to convince OPM to overrule its own in-house lawyers and continue government subsidies for congressional health coverage.

“Self-dealing special treatment to avoid the consequences of a law that Congress itself passed is precisely why the American people do not trust Washington,” Vitter wrote, adding:

The Obamacare statute states very clearly that all Members of Congress and their staffs are to procure their health insurance through the Obamacare Exchange. Just as clearly, it does not reconstitute government support of their present coverage under the separate Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP) as payment toward the Exchange. In fact, Section 1512 of Obamacare says clearly that employees going to the Exchange lose their previous employer subsidy. That’s why this special rule or bailout for Congress is illegal.

It may be true that Republicans, bruised from an ill-timed effort to defund Obamacare in exchange for passing a budget out of the House, have very little leverage right now. But ending any special treatment for Congress in the Obamacare law is hugely and dramatically popular with voters.

Heather Higgins, a supporter of Senator Vitter and president of the group Independent Women’s Voice, says the battle over his anti-exemption amendment is more than mere symbolism. “If anyone is serious about getting future negotiating leverage to delay all or part of Obamacare, they need to support and pass Vitter to get that leverage,” she told me. “If they can’t be bothered with Vitter, then they are ignoring a) the larger principle at stake, b) the branding that goes with this issue, and c) the importance of leverage in negotiations.”

Senator Vitter says it’s increasingly clear that most Americans don’t want to live under Obamacare, and his amendment is a way to showcase in bright colors just how unfair the law is. “Maybe if members of Congress see what a train wreck the law really is, they’ll be slowly forced to follow the example of the Obama administration’s friends-and-cronies exemptions and exempt all of America from it,” he told me last week.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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