Leading Republicans have insisted their efforts to repeal Obamacare and replace it with legislation predicted to knock tens of millions of Americans off of their insurance are based in sincere policy principles, not politics.
That claim died Tuesday night, when House Republicans introduced an amendment ensuring that members of Congress and their staff would be exempt from the consequences of any health insurance law the party manages to pass.
Under the House amendment, first reported by Vox, lawmakers and their staff members would still be protected by Obamacare’s pro-consumer rules that get wiped out for millions of other Americans under the Republican repeal package.
The broader repeal bill encourages states to abandon Obamacare rules that bar insurers from refusing people with pre-existing conditions and establish a minimum amount of coverage that all health insurance plans must offer. These consumer protections become optional under the deal — exposing House and Senate members and staff to the whims of their home-state governments.
“Republican legislators liked this policy well enough to offer it in a new amendment. They do not, however, seem to like it enough to have it apply to themselves and their staff,” Vox’s Sarah Kliff reports.
The man behind the amendment, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), confirmed the scheme to Kliff.
Freedom Caucus leader Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) has denied that the deal MacArthur brokered includes a carve-out for Congress. But his reported reasoning, based on Washington, D.C.’s non-state status, is incorrect.
After their repeal efforts faltered earlier this spring, Republicans and the White House have consistently chosen to make their proposed health care plan crueler to the sick, poor, and working-class in hopes of winning more support from the Freedom Caucus. That tendency — chasing hard-right votes while trying to convince moderates not to bolt — makes the special congressional exemption from Trumpcare an especially insidious. Influential Republicans are sweetening the deal for moderates by offering them a personal escape hatch from the hard-hearted legislation.
MacArthur’s self-serving maneuver is obviously hypocritical in the immediate sense. If a lawmaker thinks it would be good for Americans to lose insurance protections at their governor’s whim, she shouldn’t have any trouble facing that same music herself.
But there’s another level of hypocrisy at play here, at least for the Republican lawmakers who have been around since the original Obamacare fight in 2009 and 2010. Back then, during the debate over the passage of the Affordable Care Act, GOP leaders argued it’s only fair to require Congress to participate in any health insurance overhaul it imposes on the country.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) led the Republican grandstanding campaign at the time. As Obamacare‘s architects crafted state-level exchanges where people who do not get coverage through their job could buy insurance, Grassley and others attacked Democrats for not offering to participate in the exchanges themselves. Nevermind that lawmakers and federal staffers already get insurance through their employer and thus are not part of the population served by the exchanges; Grassley insisted “that Congress should live under the same laws it passes for the rest of the country.”
Republicans fought to add in language requiring federal lawmakers to buy their health insurance through the new systems created by the law, rather than continuing to receive the same employer-based insurance that covers all other federal workers.
Democrats, after initially trying to explain the policy incoherence of Grassley’s demogoguery, eventually shrugged and agreed. The Grassley Amendment became part of the final law; Congress and its staffers got shoved off their employer-sponsored health care and into the individual market where the Iowa Republican wanted them.
The Grassley gambit had no significant policy impact, but a long and barbed political tail. When Democrats tried to repeal the Grassley language years later — hoping that everyone had realized how silly it was to make exchanges for a specific type of customer and then force a bunch of the other type of customer to use them, too — conservatives accused them of perfidy. When the federal Office of Personnel Management later tried to solve Grassley’s riddle in a straightforward way, conservatives accused the government of paying for staffers’ abortions.
Now, MacArthur and his colleagues are on the other end of Grassley’s gun.