During the government shutdown last fall, Sen. David Vitter's proposed amendment to remove subsidies from lawmakers' and their staffers' health care was a major point of contention, but ultimately it was dropped from negotiations. (It was reported that House SpeakerJohn Boehner secretly worked with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to maintain the subsidies.) Now, Vitter is bringing up his amendment again in an op-ed for Roll Call.
"I get it," he begins. "My legislation to end Washington’s Obamacare exemption or subsidy doesn't make me popular in Washington. But if you think it's going away, I have news for you: There's only one way to make that happen, and that's to pass it." Vitter continues:
The point is simple: Washington should have to experience Obamacare just like millions of Americans do. And millions have been forced onto the Obamacare exchanges against their will with no special deal or unique, ultra-generous subsidy. ... Make no mistake about it — this exemption and subsidy is an insider deal, cooked up to take the sting out of Obamacare for the Washington elite while our constituents suffer the full-body blow.
The above paragraph is especially disingenuous, for a few reasons. First, Congress and congressional staff were forced onto the Obamacare exchanges because of a Republican amendment. Normally, lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill would get health insurance from their employer, which happens to be the government. But Sen. Chuck Grassley came up with the idea in 2010 that everyone in Congress should go on the Obamacare exchanges so that lawmakers had a stake in the efficacy of the health care law. Eventually, the Grassley amendment passed with bipartisan support. Later, the Office of Personnel Management reasoned that lawmakers and staffers should still get employer contributions to their health insurance, just like any other American who gets insurance from his or her employer. So the employer contribution isn't a "unique, ultra-generous subsidy," it's a correction for the fact that lawmakers and staffers were forced onto the exchanges sooner than they should have been. Congressional employees will get the same contributions towards Obamacare that they used to get under their federal health insurance plans: $5,000 for individuals and $11,000 for families. If Vitter wants to call that ultra-generous, fine, but it's not some new, higher rate.
Vitter also contests the fact that some congressional employees don't have to go on the exchanges at all. Last fall, a chief administrative officer of the House explained that the best reading of the law is that "personal" staff should go on the exchanges, while other "unofficial" staff who are paid through congressional committee budgets can stay on the federal health insurance plan like other federal workers. Vitter wants everybody on Obamacare, and he wants everybody to pay for it.
Of course, Vitter doesn't mention in his op-ed that his staff (and all Hill staffers) would get essentially get a big pay cut if he gets his amendment passed. He keeps the focus on Congress, and alleges that "I’ve refused any subsidy for myself or my family." Vitter may be able to afford to pay his health care costs entirely out of pocket, but the average congressional staff assistant makes $29,900 a year. During the shutdown debate, The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza collected anonymous responses from Hill staffers criticizing the amendment:
A House Republican staffer on the Vitter amendment (includes art!)… pic.twitter.com/CpChGYUNDp— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) October 15, 2013
The staffers don't want this, and like Boehner, most congressional leaders have realized the amendment is not a good or popular idea. So yes, Vitter is correct when he writes that his amendment hasn't endeared him to Washington. Now, the senator is running for governor in Louisiana — if he wins, it'd be nice if his parting gift to his old staff wasn't a pay cut.