ObamaCare for Congress
Trump can change a rule that exempts Members from the law’s pain.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference on healthcare Washington, July 24. Photo: Bloomberg News
President Trump likes to govern by Twitter threat, which often backfires, to put it mildly. But he’s onto something with his recent suggestion that Members of Congress should have to live under the health-care law they imposed on Americans.
Over the weekend Mr. Trump tweeted that “If a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!” He later added: “If ObamaCare is hurting people, & it is, why shouldn’t it hurt the insurance companies & why should Congress not be paying what public pays?”
Mr. Trump is alluding to a dispensation from ObamaCare for Members of Congress and their staff, and the back story is a tutorial in Washington self-dealing. A 2009 amendment from Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) forced congressional employees to obtain coverage from the Affordable Care Act exchanges. The Senate Finance Committee adopted it unanimously.
That meant Members and their staff would no longer enjoy coverage from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which subsidizes up to 75% of the cost of a plan. The text of the Affordable Care Act says that staffers may “only” be offered plans created by the law or on the exchanges.
The law did not specify what would happen to the employer contributions, though Democrats claim this was merely a copy-editing mistake. A meltdown ensued as Members feared that staffers would be exposed to thousands of dollars more in annual health-care costs, replete with predictions that junior aides would clean out their desks en masse.
Mr. Obama intervened in 2013 and the Office of Personnel Management issued a rule that would allow employer contributions to exchange plans, not that OPM had such legal authority. One hilarious detail is that OPM certified the House and Senate as “small businesses” with fewer than 50 full-time employees, and no doubt the world would be better if that were true. This invention allowed Members to purchase plans on the District of Columbia exchange for small businesses, where employers can make contributions to premiums. This is a farce and maybe a fraud.
In last week’s Senate health-care debate, Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson circulated an idea to block subsidies for Members, who earn at least $174,000 a year and would not receive generous taxpayer underwriting on the exchanges. The Johnson amendment would restore staff to the federal benefits program. Alas, the amendment commands almost no support. Not even Democrats want to sign up for their own policy.
But Mr. Trump could direct OPM to scrap the rule for Members, which is reversible because Mr. Obama reworked his own law through regulation that can be undone by a successor. Mr. Obama also refused to pursue a legislative fix for the problem lest Republicans demand something in return.
Revoking the rule would have the political benefit of forcing Members to live under the regime that Democrats rammed into law and Republicans have failed to fix. If Members are pained by higher premiums and fewer insurance choices, perhaps they will be inspired to fix the law for the millions who have had to endure it.
Appeared in the August 2, 2017, print edition.