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October 25 09:32 AM

We must end Washington’s Obamacare exemption

Op-ed by David Vitter

Exclusive for the Times Picayune

Unless we make a change, Washington insiders will get a special exemption from the normal Obamacare rules and costs that apply to other Americans. Even worse, this is contrary to the Obamacare statute itself; it's an insider bailout created through a special Obama administration rule – in other words, by administrative fiat.

A specific provision of the health-care law says that members of Congress and all of their official staff are required to procure their health-care coverage on the Obamacare exchange, just like millions of other Americans. Over 8 million of these other Americans are being dumped from their previous employer-provided coverage and forced into Obamacare.

The intended purpose of this provision for Congress, pushed by me and other conservatives during the original Obamacare debate, is simple but important: What's imposed on America should be experienced by Washington as well. The chefs should have to eat their own cooking.

But in a classic case of Washington protecting its own, the Obama administration announced an illegal administrative fix to this provision in order to take the financial sting out and largely undo it.

This special rule, with no basis in the Obamacare statute itself, allows members of Congress to keep many of their staff members off the exchange entirely. And members of Congress and staff who do go on the exchange would get a huge taxpayer-funded subsidy (about $5,000 for single workers/$10,000 for families) unavailable to all other Americans at the same income levels. This creates a special exemption from the normal Obamacare rules and costs for members of Congress and their staff.

The long-standing statute which authorizes employer contributions for federal employees requires the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to comply with certain rate and benefit requirements for the plans it approves and subsidizes as a large employer representing 8 million enrollees. But the Obamacare small business exchange involved in the special rule imposes different rate and benefit requirements. So it's illegal to magically transport a subsidy from the former to the latter.

In addition, section 1312 of Obamacare prohibits large employers (and Congress is unfortunately a very large employer) from participating in these small group markets until 2017. For all of these reasons – plus the basic fact that all mention of a subsidy was clearly left out of the relevant Obamacare section – this special rule for Congress is illegal.

Folks in Washington are arguing that the political class deserves some extra help when faced with the onerous costs of Obamacare. But what about the 8 million-plus other Americans who are being forced onto the Obamacare exchange against their will? They get no special help, special exemption, or special subsidy.

To reverse this Washington double standard, I’ve introduced legislation that would end this special Obamacare exemption for Washington. It would reverse the illegal Obama Administration rule by requiring all members of Congress and absolutely all their staff to purchase their health insurance on the Obamacare exchange without the help of special taxpayer-funded subsidies. It would also create the same rule for the President, Vice President, and all of their political appointees.

Requiring this is really important for two reasons. First, it's a matter of basic fairness. The first rule of American democracy should be that all laws that Washington imposes on America apply in exactly the same way to Washington.

Second, there's a very practical dynamic. The sooner Washington eats its own cooking, the sooner it will start getting things right — on Obamacare and a lot more.

Of course, political insiders are deeply threatened by my legislation. Many twist the facts and deny that the exemption even exists. In letters to Louisianans, for example, Sen. Mary Landrieu accurately states that she and her staff are explicitly required to receive health insurance under the Obamacare exchange. But she goes on and writes, "Let me assure you that there is no exemption for members of Congress and their staff.”

Harry Reid has gone to enormous lengths to block a vote on my proposal on the Senate floor. He even had staff draft amendments to it clearly meant to threaten, intimidate and even financially penalize me and others who support it. And President Obama has even gotten into the act and personally issued a veto threat, which is highly unusual.

But there are two factors in our favor. First, the rules of the U.S. Senate offer any individual senator many tools and opportunities to demand a vote. I'll use all of those tools and opportunities to demand a clear up-or-down vote on my bill. This issue isn't going away.

Second and even more importantly, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And the simple idea that Washington should be treated like the rest of America hasn't simply come; it's long, long overdue.

David Vitter represents Louisiana in the U. S. Senate.

*This column originally ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and on Nola.com on October 18, 2013.

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