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DC’s Fight Over ObamaCare Exemption Gets Dirty

Posted By Arnold Ahlert On September 17, 2013 @ 12:50 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 18 Comments

Last Wednesday, while Americans remained distracted by Syria, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) began an effort to bring Washington, D.C.’s aptly described ruling class down to the same level as the people they represent. In return for allowing his fellow senators to continue proposing amendments to an energy efficiency bill on which they have begun deliberations, Vitter is demanding a floor vote on his amendment to end an exemption to ObamaCare for Congress and their staff members. The exemption allows them to continue receiving employer subsidies to pay for their health insurance. “My amendment is not related to this [energy] bill but I have to bring it up now because it’s very time sensitive since [ObamaCare] will go into effect on Oct. 1,” he said on the Senate floor. “I think this is a special exemption for Washington.”

“Washington” is fighting back. Sources have told Politico that a bipartisan effort is being made by Republican and Democrat staffers and aides to ensure Vitter’s amendment never gets a vote, or that it is defeated if it does. Furthermore, Senate Democrats, angry that Vitter is trying to attach his amendment to an unrelated bill (as if that hasn’t happened innumerable times before), are considering three incredibly childish amendments aimed at getting even with Vitter, along with anyone who supports him.

The first amendment seeks to deny federal healthcare contributions to any lawmaker where there is “probable cause to determine” that the individual has “engaged in the solicitation of prostitution.” This is aimed at reigniting the 2007 “D.C. Madam” scandal during which Vitter’s name appeared on the phone records of a DC-based prostitution ring. At the time Vitter apologized for “a very serious sin in my past,” but declined to elaborate. The second amendment is broader, denying contributions to anyone who has engaged in “improper conduct reflecting discreditably on the congressional office involved.” The third amendment is nothing less than a veiled threat, promising to end exemptions for anyone who supports Vitter’s amendment even if it fails to become law.

Vitter refuses to be intimidated. “Harry Reid is acting like an old-time Vegas mafia thug, and a desperate one at that,” he told Politico. He also sent a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee, demanding an investigation of Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) for breaking the Senate’s code of conduct by floating such amendments. “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 to the Committee. He further insisted that this is “the exact sort of behavior that the Senate Ethics Committee has previously condemned.” Reid characterized Vitter’s charges as “absurd and baseless,” while Boxer insists that Vitter “has manufactured a bizarre and phony attack that demeans the Senate.”

There is little doubt that Reid and his fellow Democrats would like to keep the machinations that prompted Vitter’s efforts from becoming highly publicized, further angering a public that maintains a 53 percent disapproval rating of the healthcare law, and a whopping 73 percent disapproval of Congress. Such contempt is undoubtedly tied to the political class’s ever-increasing disconnect from ordinary Americans, one that is often highlighted by the attempts to exempt itself from the laws it mandates for the rest of us.

The machinations surrounding ObamaCare go all the way back to 1995, when the first Republican congressional majority in 40 years passed the Congressional Accountability Act that applied 13 civil rights, labor, and workplace safety and health laws to the United States Congress and its Legislative Branch agencies. They required those entities to follow many of the same laws applied to the private and public sectors.

In 2009, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) proposed a similar amendment for ObamaCare, and it was unanimously adopted by the Finance Committee.

When a watered-down version of that amendment (excluding committee staff members) was included in the Christmas Eve passage of ObamaCare in 2010, Harry Reid neglected to address what would happen to the health insurance premium subsidies the government provides for Congress and their staff members. As a result of Reid’s mistake, approximately 11,000 members of Congress and their staffs would have lost the coverage they currently receive under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). Those premium subsidies range from $5,000 to $11,000.

Unsurprisingly, these Washington insiders were outraged at the thought of being placed in the “Medicaid Plus” programs being offered at the exchanges, even as they would be forced to come up with thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses for an inferior-quality health insurance plan. Congressmen even had the nerve to warn of a “brain drain” from Washington if the law remained intact. Those would be the “brains” that have helped to accumulate $17 trillion of national debt, and more than $85 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

On July 31, the president told Democrats in a closed door meeting that he would become personally involved in resolving the issue. One week later, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) proposed a new rule “fixing” the problem, absent the necessity of congressional approval. That the OPM lacks the authority to make such changes, whether they are in the form of paying for insurance plans that lack FEHBP contracts, allowing exchange contributions, or giving Congress and their staffs a de facto pay raise in return for having to contribute more to their own healthcare costs, is apparently irrelevant.

Except to Vitter. He insists the OPM does not have the “statutory authority” to authorize these changes. Furthermore, the OPM itself has announced it may not issue its final ruling on the proposed fix until after enrollment in the exchanges begins on October 1. “However, please be assured that from the day the OPM final rule is issued until the open enrollment period closes, our benefits counselors will work tirelessly to ensure there is no gap in coverage for those no longer eligible to participate in FEHBP,” states a memo issued by the agency last Thursday.

This delay presents Vitter and his bill’s co-sponsor, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), the chance to make their case. “Many Americans will see their health coverage dropped by employers, and they will be forced into the exchanges,” Vitter told National Review columnist John Fund last week. “If Congress is forced into them on the same terms, it will be more likely to fix ObamaCare’s problems for others.”

Those terms are simple: every member of Congress, along with the president, vice president and political appointees will be required to purchase their health insurance on the exchanges without getting subsidies. Moreover, congressional staff will be prevented from receiving any contribution to their health plans greater than what they could get if they were not congressional employees.

House Republicans are on board with Vitter’s plan as well. They have introduced a companion bill in their chamber and will offer it as part of the latest Continuing Resolution that has become the way a dysfunctional Congress continues spending money in the absence of a real budget. A lot of House Republicans want to include a provision in that CR defunding ObamaCare, even as House leadership desperately wants to avoid the issue because it might cause a government shutdown. Perhaps a House version of Vitter’s amendment offers a viable alternative, in that it essentially forces Democrats to embrace every iota of a law they desperately want to succeed. Republicans should realize that making Democrats defend ObamaCare is one thing. Making them defend the status quo privileges of Beltway elitists is another matter altogether.

Two surveys reveal why. The first survey, a FedSmith.com poll of 2,500 federal employees and retirees, reveals that 92.3 percent of them believe federal workers should be able to keep their current health insurance and not be forced into ObamaCare. A poll taken for the conservative group Independent Women’s Voice reveals that 92 percent of Americans think Congress should be all in with regard to ObamaCare. If Republicans can’t exploit that massive disconnect, loudly and often, they’re useless–or as much a part of the problem as Democrats.

Senate co-sponsor Enzi gets to the crux of the issue. “Now you would think that if the bill was named after you, you would want to be under it,” he said. “So we are hoping the president will take that approach with he and his staff and help us to get this passed. So that Congress and the administration have to live under whatever the American people have to live under.” That “hope” is entirely misplaced, but the amendment is exactly the kind of “change” most Americans will rally behind.

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