Last night, as the standoff over the debt ceiling and government shutdown came to an end, against the wishes of Sen. Ted Cruz, his speechwriter quickly pivoted to the topic that Republicans think will be their winning issue in the 2014 midterms: the horrors of Obamacare. Amanda Carpenter complained, "Um, I'm still losing my healthcare plan. Nothing changes." This is true, as a Congressional staffer, Carpenter will next year have to purchase health insurance on an Obamacare exchange. But she left out the key reason for this change: she can't keep her current healthcare plan because of a Republican amendment to Obamacare. And she should actually count herself lucky: Cruz failed to make her healthcare worse by eliminating Obamacare subsidies for Carpenter and other Congressional staffers which would have dramatically raised her cost of insurance. Not only did Cruz want to strip Congressional staffers of this subsidy but he also wanted to take it from all other federal workers. "I’d like to see the Vitter amendment broader," Cruz said on the Senate floor in September.
This disconnect between cause and effect has been a familiar phenomenon: create the problems that can be railed against. In 2011, during the last debt limit showdown, for instance, Tea Party Republicans warned that an economic disaster was looming because the federal government was spending so much money — and the only way to stop that later crisis was to create an immediate one by threatening to breach the debt limit. (Budget fights have cost us 2 million jobs since 2010, according to a report by Macroeconomic Advisers. But we have averted the global calamity that would come with breaching the debt limit.) Or think back to the strange moments of Republicans who had called for a government shutdown protesting that war memorials had been shut down.
On Fox News on Wednesday night, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio promised that as Obamacare continues to go into effect over the next six months, Americans would turn against it. "There is going to be an all-out revolt in this country over that. And that is, I think, the moment to absolutely act and say we are going to get rid of this law and then look for opportunities in the future to replace it," Rubio said, as Politico notes. The glitches in the federal Obamacare exchange site — which covers 34 states — are almost entirely the Obama administration's fault. But many of the other problems will be Republicans' creation. About 8 million poor Americans will not get health care help because they live in one of the 26 states that refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would pay for the entire cost through 2016. In at least 17 Republican-controlled states, Republicans have made it more difficult for people to become Obamacare "navigators" — guides who help people sign up for Obamacare by requiring licensing exams, background checks, and fees, or limiting what they can say. New income verification requirements could make it harder to sign up on the exchanges. And then there's the case of congressional staffers like Ted Cruz's.
The reason Cruz's speechwriter is losing her current health coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program is an amendment to the 2010 Affordable Care Act introduced by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa that required the law to "apply" to members of Congress and their staff by making them buy health insurance on Obamacare's state exchanges. "Apply" is in scare quotes because Obamacare requires people to buy insurance if they can't get it through their employer — which was not the case with Capitol Hill aides. In fact, employers with more than 50 full-time workers are required to offer insurance (a mandate that has been delayed a year). So in essence, these rules to make sure Congress isn't "exempted" from Obamacare are actually giving it special treatment and singling out people like Carpenter for punitive treatment.
Update: Carpenter, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not happy with being portrayed as unhappy with the effects of her boss's political positions. Carpenter emailed The Atlantic Wire, drawing a distinction between the Grassley amendment, which forced Congress and staff to join the exchanges, and the Vitter amendment, which removes the subsidy for insurance. She writes, "My point is about being forced off my healthcare plan which Grassley pushed PRECISELY so staffers would feel the same pain other Americans are." She adds that Cruz "has spoken endlessly about how terrible it is Obamacare is forcing Americans to lose their healthcare plans. I agree, especially because I am one of them." Does that mean Cruz supports eliminating the Grassley amendment, so staffers and lawmakers can get back their old insurance? "I can't speak to his support of the amendment (he's actually on a plane right now) but he's said on multiple occasions that politicians and staff should be equally like every other American, which is one of the main reasons he's been pushing to defund and repeal Obamacare completely," Carpenter said. As we argued above, if Carpenter was being treated like everyone else, she'd still be on her old health plan and wouldn't have a complaint.
The government shutdown — waged to stop Obamacare, or at least turn public sentiment more strongly against it — had many perverse political effects for Republicans. Support for Obamacare actually increased in polls. The shutdown drowned out news of the Obamacare insurance exchanges' disastrous rollout. And, in the last days of the standoff, last minute haggling over the Vitter amendment actually drew attention to how incredibly expensive health insurance is, even for middle class people, in a way we haven't seen since the law was passed in 2010. Hill staffers emailed The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza worried about the possibility the Vitter amendment would be included in a deal. A Republican Senate aide said, "My healthcare costs are already going to sky rocket, but being responsible for 100 percent of my premiums just isn’t realistic on my salary. I know I’m not the only staffer looking for a job off the hill because I knew this was a possibility." A Democratic House staffer said:
I will make $22,800 this year after taxes. That is it. I am a 30 year old married congressional staffer with a 20 month old son who depends on my job for his health insurance. My husband has to pay for his own health care through his salary, and it would cost him over $1000 a month to cover the whole family. I just started in this position 6 months ago, after being out of work for a year and staying at home with my baby. I need my health insurance, and I cannot afford to pay $600 a month for coverage. Without this so called “subsidy” (the same “subsidy” congressional staffers have been receiving for years before the ACA) both myself and my son will be uninsured.
The high price of health care is one of the major problems that Obamacare was created to address. In September, Commerce Department data revealed that medical price inflation was growing at the slowest rate in 50 years. Over the last four years, heath care spending has grown 3 to 4 percent a year, down from between 6 and 9 percent a year. We don't know yet how much of this is attributable to Obamacare. The recession certainly played a role. But it's not the bad news that Rubio is rooting for.
Carpenter tweeted on Tuesday, "It's almost November and I have no idea what my health plan will be or what it will cost in January. This. Is. Awful." She will be paying more because Republicans want her to, though not as much as her own boss was hoping. On the other hand, Cruz is probably not unhappy that she's publicly complaining about it.