Ouch, the stupid (health care edition)

One of my students in class today said he had heard the obvious solution to our shutdown dilemma from a caller to a radio show today.  Since I’m pretty sure this guy was not exactly listening to Diane Rehm, I was skeptical.  Basically, this obvious solution was the Vitter amendment.  Something so stupid I’ve paid basically no attention to it until this afternoon.  Alas, Fox News and company have apparently been all worked up about this for ages.  And, in the end, it just shows how mind-bogglingly clueless so many Republicans (including actual US Senators) are on the issue of health care policy.  How clueless?  Yglesias gives the full run-down:

However, the rise of the Vitter amendment itself is a fascinating tale of the conservative media echo chamber.

It all goes back to an amendment to the Affordable Care Act spearheaded by Chuck Grassley. This was supposed to be a poison-pill measure that would force congressional staff to obtain their health insurance on Affordable Care Act exchanges. Grassley, because he’s incredibly ill-informed, had gotten it into his head that Democrats would reject this idea out of hand. But Democrats genuinely think that health insurance exchanges are a good idea and were happy to sign on to this piece of legislative trolling. I would add that it’s actually a doubly good idea to do this, because public officials are unusually attentive to the quality of public services that public officials actually use. That’s why sequestration’s impact on air travel was addressed much more adroitly than its impact on preschool for poor kids.

But there’s a nuance here. The way most people—including congressional staffers—get health care is that their employer partially pays for it. The way the exchanges work is that the government provides subsidies so that people who don’t currently get employer-provided insurance can afford to buy it. The Grassley amendment, on one reading, would create an anomalous situation where not only would congressional staff have to buy insurance on the exchanges they’d be taking a large de facto pay cut. That’s because they’d be losing a valuable perk (employer-provided insurance) and given nothing in exchange for it. That doesn’t really make sense as public policy, and certainly Grassley’s intention wasn’t to enact an across the board cut in congressional staff pay. He was just trolling. At any rate, the Office of Personnel Management stepped in and said they did not interpret the Grassley amendment in this way. Instead they read it as authorizing the government to redirect money currently spent on buying health insurance for congressional staff to subsidizing the purchase of insurance on Obamacare exchanges. Thus, congressional staff will participate in the exchanges and the exchange process but won’t end up taking a pay cut.

Somehow the conservative press convinced itself that this constituted a “special congressional exemption” from Obamacare or from the individual mandate. At this point David Vitter—whether out of stupidity or what I can’t quite say—took up this banner and has been sponsoring legislation that would overrule the OPM and force the perverse reading of the Grassley amendment onto the government.

Kevin Drum also runs through the sorry details.   So, now, they may be willing to fund the government for the next couple weeks if they can screw their own staff out of their current health care benefit.  Truly breathtaking.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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