By Taylor Armerding
Remember those golden days when President Obama said one of the ways he intended to “fundamentally transform America” was to make sure “everyone plays by the same rules”?
Uh, never mind, especially when it comes to his signature legislative achievement, the hilariously misnamed Patient Protection Affordable Care Act, better known as “ObamaCare.”
Since it passed — so that, as former House speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said, “we can find out what’s in it” — what most of America has found out is that it doesn’t matter all that much what is in it. What matters is what the president says about it.
And that varies dramatically, depending on whether you are among groups the president favors, or are a member of or work for the real 1 percent of American privilege — Congress.
Early on, it was about waivers — more than 1,300 of them granted to various corporations and unions, including outdoor equipment retailer REI, whose then “progressive” president and CEO Sally Jewell had appeared with the president in 2009 to help him sell a law whose provisions she then got permission to avoid. Jewell was rewarded for that support not only with a waiver for REI — since April she has been Secretary of the Interior.
More recently, it was about the president unilaterally suspending the employer mandate — something he doesn’t have the constitutional authority to do, but did anyway, with little pushback from Congress or the public in general. That move was nakedly political — it has little to do with sympathy for those employers and much more to do with his hope that it will insulate his party from a train wreck in next year’s midterm elections.
And now it is about full-out exemptions for members of Congress and their personal staffs. This is a Congress that takes its cue from the infamous hotelier Leona Helmsley — the rules are just for the “little people” to follow.
The administration, with help from both parties in Congress, has been trying to keep it under the radar — you know, so the little people won’t get restive — but on the inside there is a bare-knuckled brawl over it.
It probably never would have been a problem for the ruling class if it hadn’t been for those lousy Republicans — you know, the ones who want to hurt the poor and middle class — who, way back in 1995, were able to push through the Congressional Accountability Act to fulfill one of the promises made in the Contract with America, that members of Congress should live by the same civil-rights employment and labor laws that lawmakers forced on everybody else. Sounds a lot like “everybody plays by the same rules.”
Then, in 2009, during the debate over ObamaCare, another Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, was able to insert an amendment that required all members of Congress and their staffs to get insurance through the ObamaCare health exchanges — like everybody else.
But, as the due date for joining health exchanges approached, the firestorm struck Capitol Hill. The consensus of employment lawyers was that the $5,000 to $10,000 federal health-insurance subsidies for those on the Congressional payroll would have to end.
So, last month, the president quietly rode to the rescue during the August recess, ordering the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to interpret the law in direct conflict with that legal consensus, and let those subsidies continue.
This would make members of Congress and their personal staffers the only participants in the ObamaCare exchanges to get subsidies from their employer (paid by you, the taxpayer).
The legality of this is, to put it charitably, dubious. The law, as written, does not “permit either exchange contributions or a unilateral bump in Congressional pay in return for less overall compensation,” the Wall Street Journal noted.
And that launched the current mud-smeared battle. Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., filed a bill to end that exemption, not just for Congress but also for White House officials and political appointees in the executive branch. Vitter demanded a floor vote on it.
You’d think that Democrats in general, and the president in particular, would be applauding such a move. After all, it’s about that solemn promise to make sure “everyone plays by the same rules.”
But you would be wrong. The response from Democrats has been one of outrage and spite. According to Politico, several Democratic senators are pushing for legislation that would deny federal health subsidies to any member who votes for Vitter’s bill, even if it fails.
There is also a draft of a bill circulating that would deny a subsidy to any legislator or aide who had sought to solicit a prostitute. How is that relevant? Well, you see, in 2007, Vitter’s phone number was among those found in the records of the “D.C. Madam,” owner of a prostitution ring.
Vitter publicly apologized for what he called a “serious sin,” rather than argue over what the meaning of “is” is. But when an exemption from ObamaCare is at stake, he is obviously a legitimate target for any past indiscretion, even though you can be certain that if President Bill Clinton’s sexual past ever gets brought up by Republicans, they will be accused of being part of the “Republican smear machine.”
The president needs to amend his promise. His goal is an administration in which his friends get to play by different rules.
— Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist.
CNHI News Service