Sen. David Vitter is the skunk at the Capitol Hill party. The Louisiana Republican has introduced a measure in Congress called the No Washington Exemption from Obamacare Act. Vitter’s proposal requires that all senators, representatives and congressional staff members participate in Obamacare on the same basis as their fellow citizens. The measure requires the same participation by the president, heads of executive branch departments and agencies, and administration political appointees. No special treatment. No exemptions. No illegal premium subsidies. Live under the same laws that apply to everybody else getting health insurance.
Makes perfect sense, right? Just don’t expect Vitter’s bill to become law because too many in Washington want special treatment and don’t want to be covered by Obamacare. Vitter pointed to this distressing reality during a recent speech before the Senate: “All across the country, as we see daily in the news reports, Americans are struggling with real issues and real challenges created by Obamacare ... but, as that is going on, Washington, leaders here, get an exemption, basically a carve-out, special treatment, a subsidy. That is particularly egregious, particularly unfair, when ordinary Americans suffer under these very real challenges.”
The Obamacare exemption for Congress and its staff came about because after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue read the text — most for the first time ever, by the way — and discovered, to their horror, that it also applied to them. That realization sparked a desperate behind-the-scenes scramble to change the law without being seen as doing so.
To that end, as the Heritage Foundation's Robert Moffitt explained recently in Human Events, “The White House pressured the U.S Office of Personnel Management, the agency responsible for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program that covers all federal workers, to give congressmen and their staffers the same employer's subsidy in the exchanges for next year that they would otherwise get if they had remained in the FEHBP in 2014.” The FEHBP subsidy typically covers about three-quarters of the cost of premiums.
But continuing the FEHBP subsidies was illegal because the Obamacare law clearly said members of Congress and congressional staff were covered by the program, which makes no provision for the FEHBP subsidies. In other words, OPM had no authority to do what the White House was demanding. Indeed, even before the White House began turning the screws on OPM, the agency’s lawyers had concluded they could not continue the FEHBP subsidies to members of Congress and its staff after Obamacare took effect.
No matter, as Moffitt — a former senior executive at OPM — further explained: “Under pressure from the White House, on Aug. 7, 2013, OPM gave Congress and staffers the special taxpayer subsidies anyway. They are, in fact, ‘special’ — since there is no congressional authorization for the Obama administration to provide them.”
So Congress is still technically “covered” by Obamacare, but members and their staff will continue to get the FEHBP premium subsidies. How’s that for having it both ways?