Congress is supposed to live under the laws that it passes, but evidently not when it comes to Obamacare. Under President Obama’s direction in August, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) proposed a rule that would shield members of Congress and their staff from the experience they are putting other Americans through. Although many on Capitol Hill have criticized the rule, few have turned their words into actions. Two senators, Ron Johnson and David Vitter, deserve credit for overlooking their self-interest and trying to stop this blatant double standard.
The new OPM rule allows the federal government to continue to pay for part of insurance premiums when members of Congress and their staff buy health insurance under the new health insurance exchanges. This violates the clear purpose of section 1312(d)(3)(D) of the health care law, which says that the federal government may only offer congressional members and their staff health insurance that is available on an exchange. No other American will be receiving support from their employer when buying exchange insurance, but Congress will.
This past week, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) and his staff members sent a letter to OPM, urging the agency to reconsider the rule and calling on Congress to stop OPM from unilaterally changing the law. They correctly assert that OPM does not have the legal authority to pay for federal employees’ health insurance unless those plans are under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). Exchange insurance does not meet that standard. “It is simply wrong for OPM to address the matter by issuing a regulation that is neither authorized by statute nor consistent with the plain meaning of the ACA,” they write.
On the legislative front, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) plans to offer an amendment on the Senate floor this week on the issue. Although Senator Vitter’s amendment is not perfect (e.g., it does not treat all Capitol Hill staffers the same under the health insurance exchanges), it does prohibit Congress from receiving special treatment for their health insurance premiums.
Americans are understandably upset about the special exemption for Capitol Hill. Americans buying insurance under Obamacare and those who have employer-based insurance are going through major changes to their health insurance coverage. Employers are dropping coverage. Premiums are spiking. Coverage is changing. This law was clearly poorly thought out and poorly written. Americans are struggling under the law already, why should Congress be allowed to get out from under this flawed statute? Don’t ordinary Americans deserve an exemption, too?
In response to the widespread dissatisfaction about exemptions for the well-connected, Americans for Prosperity launched a new campaign called Exempt Me Too. At JustExempt.me, people can sign an online petition that tells Congress that they want a waiver from the health care law, too. The response has been overwhelming — over 20,000 people have signed the petition in less than a week. They will be undoubtedly watching the roll call vote on the Vitter amendment this week, to see how their elected officials vote on the issue.
If people working in Capitol Hill are enrolling in the health insurance exchanges, then they need to follow the same rules as everyone else. A person’s health insurance should not be based on the strength of his or her political connections. Members of Congress should not get special protection from the harmful impacts of a law that is currently burdening the rest of the country. Instead of using unlawful executive overreach to provide relief for the politically well connected, the law must be repealed entirely.
Christine Harbin Hanson is the Federal Affairs Manager at Americans for Prosperity.