Americans who turned on the Sunday talk shows or picked up a newspaper to learn why the government shutdown drags on got no clues.
But an Oct. 2 e-mail based on a directive from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from the Chief Administrative Officer for Congress to all members of Congress shines light on the real reason: political self-interest.
The e-mail tells members of Congress and their staffs that they have to choose a “gold” level plan on the Obamacare exchange.
“You see the bronze and silver’s only good enough for everyone else in the country. For members of Congress and members of the Senate and their staff, it’s gold or nothing,” said Maryland Republican Rep. Andy Harris on the House floor the day after the OPM email.
That gold-plated healthcare appears to be a key sticking point between Senate Democrats and House Republicans preventing an end to the shutdown.
Last week, in its latest offer, the House Republican majority said it will pass a stopgap measure to keep all of the government operating, provided the Senate and President Obama agree to two conditions:
First, eliminate the illegal Obamacare subsidy that the president weaseled for members of Congress and their staff in August. That subsidy will pay 75 percent of the cost of the gold-plated plan.
“It’s a fairness issue,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner. No one else in America earning $174,000 a year will get a subsidy to pay for their Obamacare coverage.
Second, delay the individual mandate for one year, just as Obama postponed the mandate on employers with 50 or more full-time workers.
Anyone who wants Obamacare can sign up, but there will be no penalty for not participating.
The first of the two requirements is the big problem, though no member of Congress interviewed on any of the talk shows Sunday was willing to raise the issue.
Only veteran adviser Karl Rove even brought up the topic. That's because any discussion of eliminating the special plan for members of Congress and their staff sparks vitriol at the Capitol.
Section 1312 of the Affordable Care Act requires that members of Congress and their staffs enroll in the health plans offered on the Obamacare exchanges.
The thinking was that what’s good enough for the public ought to be good enough for Congress. That was in 2010. But as the time neared, politicians in both parties got cold feet.
Until now, members of Congress received a 75 percent subsidy funded by taxpayers to enroll in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.
Signing up for Obamacare without a subsidy would cost each member of Congress and their staff members thousands of dollars.
Suddenly, the Affordable Care Act doesn’t look so affordable. So just before Congress’s August recess, Obama connived a back-door arrangement with OPM to award members of Congress and their staff a 75 percent subsidy to pay for their Obamacare plans.
The OPM email to Congress reminded them that the subsidy will be a 75 percent of the cost of a gold plan. The rest of America – the unwashed majority – get subsidies pegged to the lower-tier silver plan, and, of course, only if they earn a mere fraction of what a member of Congress gets.
An indication of how testy members of the Senate are about keeping their gold-plated benefit, consider the threats made to Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter.
In September, Vitter and several other members of the Senate with scruples held up a vote on an unrelated energy bill by trying to attach an amendment eliminating Congress’s Obamacare subsidy.
What happened next illustrates the lengths to which politicians will go to protect their perks. Draft legislation obtained by Politico showed Senate Democrats weighing a measure to eliminate health plan subsidies for lawmakers for whom there is “probable cause” that they patronized prostitutes.
That was a not-so-veiled threat to Vitter, based on his being named in a prostitution scandal in 2007 involving Deborah Jean Palfrey, the infamous “D.C. Madam.”
Lesson: The special health plan subsidy for members of Congress is shameful and violates the letter of the president’s own health law.
But don't try to get between lawmakers and their lavish perks. Congress looks out for itself, not for us.Betsy McCaughey is the former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of "Beating Obamacare: Your handbook for the new healthcare law."